I’ve been wanting to run Big Bend Ultra for about the last three years. I found out about the race shortly after our family trip to Big Bend Ranch State park five years ago and it’s been on my list ever since, but for one reason or another, mainly Boston, the timing never seemed to work out. LAST January, I finally figured that 2018 was THE year for Big Bend and I started making tentative plans.
Reservations for accommodations were made waaaay back in June. By the time race registration finally opened in August, it really seemed like a formality. I was going to Big Bend.
For those unfamiliar with the area, Big Bend is an entire region of Texas. It includes Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, several very small towns and a whole lotta cacti.
It took about 10 hours and two tanks of gas to drive from my house in northwest Houston to the national park.
I stayed in the only lodging in the national park, the Chisos Mountain Lodge. The rooms are sparse but comfortable. There’s a microwave, small fridge, and coffee pot in every room but there are no TVs, and no phones. In the lodge there’s a small restaurant, a bar, a gift shop, a small convenience store, and a seriously temperamental Wi-Fi signal. Definitely no cell phone service.
I got there a couple of days early to do some hiking in the national park. And yeah, maybe hiking 9 miles the day before my first ultra wasn’t the smartest thing to do…but whatever. All’s well that ends well. It was worth it. I mean, look at that view!
When I woke up the morning of the race, it was a little surreal. It felt similar to the way I felt the morning of Boston. Is this really happening? Finally? I’d been wanting to do it for so long!
I couldn’t have asked for a better day. It was chilly that morning, 30 degrees F, but it was supposed to warm up to 60 by noon with not a cloud in the sky. Absolutely perfect.
I wore a running skirt, short sleeve tech shirt, light shell jacket, running gloves, a baseball cap, ear warmers, compression sleeves on my calves, a pair of gaiters, and my trail shoes (Altra Lone peak 3.0). I carried my hydration pack (Ultimate Direction Ultravesta) with 70 ounces of water, and two collapsible 10-ounce soft flasks of half strength Tailwind.
After I got dressed, I said a little prayer and then left for the hour drive to Lajitas.
The race took place in the far eastern side of the state park, starting and ending at the Barton Warnock Visitor Center.
The 50k started at 7:05 a.m. when it was still quite dark outside. Did I say dark? What I really meant was DARK. No moon, no light pollution from neighboring cities, can’t see your hand in front of your face, DARK. So dark, in fact, that on the walk from the parking lot to the start area I nearly walked head on into another person who was walking the opposite direction. No kidding.
The course was a variation of an out an back. At mile 8, we were to begin a large, 15 mile loop around a mountain and then at mile 22, we were to rejoin the same trail that we took on the way there. It allowed the race organizers to only set up three aid stations on the 50k course (the first one of which was shared with the 30k) and two of them served runners going both directions. The 30k had a similar format.
Around 7 a.m. we all meandered toward a large inflatable arch and a small tent set up in the parking lot and shivered as we waited. The race director said a few words about the race, and then instructed us all to stand, “right about here,” as he waved his hand back and forth in an imaginary line just shy of the timing system.
In what was maybe the most anticlimactic start ever, without even a bullhorn he says, “5…4…3…2…1…Go.” A second guy pushed a button on the clock and that was it. The race had started.
No gun. No national anthem. No ceremony of any kind. Just a bunch of cold, crazy people running off into the desert in the black of night.
The first mile of the race there was quite a bit of nervous chatter.
“I hope the guy in front knows where he’s going.”
“I wish I’d worn my headlamp.”
“Holy crap, it’s cold.”
“Why are we running so fast?”
I wore a headlamp for the first 3 miles or so while I waited for the giant flashlight in the sky to wake up. Those first few miles were chilly. My hands were numb and the cold air cut through my thin jacket.
As I ran, I kept looking over my shoulder at the sunrise. There’s something special about a sunrise in the desert and something even more special when you’re watching it alone. Majestic is the only word that comes to mind, and I’m not even sure that accurately describes it.
As soon as the sun came out, the headlamp went into my jacket pocket and it warmed up pretty quickly. There, in that moment, I was truly happy. The sun was out, my legs were fresh, I was doing something that I loved and all of life’s problems were hundreds of miles away. For the first time in years I was able to relax.
It didn’t take long to notice the altitude. Training at sea level means that any change of altitude at all is tough for your body. A start at 2,400 feet and max altitude of 3,500 feet doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I was sucking wind at a 10 minute mile.
Remembering my past heart rate mistakes, I parked my watch on the heart rate screen, reminded myself that 30-some-odd miles is a long way, and pace didn’t matter. The goal was to manage my sugar consumption by not letting my heart rate go over 160 – anything higher than that required walking. (If you remember when I took my VO2 Max test, 160 was the heart rate where my rate of sugar consumption began to increase.)
This is a SMALL race. With only 47 participants in the 50k, you can imagine that the runners spread out pretty quickly, and we did. By mile 4 there were no other runners in sight. I was alone with nothing to go on but little red flags tied to rocks and bushes to mark the way.
The course was a combination of unmaintained dirt roads, and singletrack trail, some of which was steep and slightly treacherous. It went in and out through dry washes and it was easy to lose your way if you weren’t paying attention. With no one in front of me to follow I often found myself following foot prints in the sand and stopping for a couple of minutes at a time to make sure I didn’t lose the trail.
At mile 5, I found the first aid station, stocked with water, Skratch, pretzels, oranges, bananas, cookies and about 10 frozen volunteers.
I grabbed a cookie, and was on my way.
Things were uneventful until mile 8. I was running down a hill, on one of the unmaintained roads, when my right toe caught a small rock embedded in the ground. There was no waving of arms, flailing or anything that was going to save me and I knew it. In slow motion I felt my body fly through the air and I knew I was helpless to stop it.
My right hand, forearm and right thigh took the brunt of the impact. Thanks to my jacket and gloves, my arm came out okay and my hand wasn’t scraped up but my thigh was covered in white dirt and was dripping blood. I got up, dusted myself off and walked for a minute to assess the damage.
I hobbled around the corner and by sheer coincidence found the second aid station. Thank goodness for good timing. The ladies there wiped down my leg with an antiseptic wipe, and violating all first aid protocols regarding the proper handling of bodily fluids, used their bare hands to rub Neosporin on my open wound, smearing blood all over my leg.
They asked if they should find someone to come get me and I told them no. I took a few minutes to gather myself and then headed back toward the trail. As I left, one of the ladies asked to take a picture of my bloody leg, and told me I was a “piece of work.” Maybe one day I’ll see that picture.
The pain in my leg subsided after a few miles, but my right hand was throbbing. Having to hold my hand up as I ran was painful and I could barely open and close it. I couldn’t move it side to side at all. I was still wearing my gloves so I couldn’t see how badly it was injured and honestly I was a little scared of what I would find.
Around mile 12, I noticed a sore spot developing on the inside ball of my right foot. I had some Vaseline in my pack so I stopped on the trail to lube up my foot; I also wanted to take off my jacket, as it was starting to get warm.
When I was forced to finally take off my glove to untie my shoe, I saw my hand for the first time. It was purple and very swollen near my index finger knuckle. I spent the rest of the race trying to decide if it was broken.
Topping out at 3,400 feet, the 50k had a total of 1,900 feet of elevation gain, almost all of it in the first 15 miles. I spent a lot of those 15 miles walking, mostly on the steep uphill sections, trying to keep my heart rate steady and conserve energy.
At mile 15, I stopped at the third aid station, chugged a shot of coke and kept on running. As the terrain shifted from uphill to downhill I could feel my body breathe a sigh of relief. The 12 minute/mile plod from the front half turned into a 10 minute/mile jog on the second half.
During the race I saw almost no one, especially on the back half. It was an odd feeling being alone out there in the desert. Several times I stopped and stood still just to listen to the silence and take in the amazing landscape.
You don’t really appreciate how small you are and how amazing nature is until you’re alone in the wilderness, where the expanse is so vast that the mountains that appear to be right there, are actually 10 miles away. It’s a bit of a scary feeling knowing you’re 15 miles from the nearest road, totally cut off from the world and the only way out is by moving your own two legs…one of which is bleeding.
By the time I made it to the fourth aid station, around mile 21, I knew I was going to finish but I could tell it was gonna suck. I refilled my hydration pack, ate half a banana, and finally took off my gloves. At the aid station one of the volunteers saw my Boston shirt and said, “Oh you ran Boston?”
Oh yeah. I did.
At that moment, in the middle of the desert, Boston felt like decades ago.
Those last nine miles where tough. By mile 22, I was wishing I’d registered for the 30k. I was exhausted, and my legs were wobbly from the uphill torment and the downhill battle. My brain was fried.
By mile 25, when I got to the last aid station, my lungs were exhausted. It was difficult to get enough air, and each breath sounded like a wheeze.
With a mile left to go, I started looking for the road that we turned down to go back to the visitor center.
Where is it? I know it’s here somewhere.
Is that it?
Then, finally, I saw a car. THERE IT IS!!
When I turned onto the asphalt for the 200 yard run to the finish, my stride opened and my legs rejoiced! I’d never been so happy to run on pavement! I turned into the parking lot, ran through the chute, and under the inflatable finish line.
5 hours, 59 minutes, 52 seconds after I started, I was finished. I was exhausted, sore, and still bleeding but I made it!!
I did the whole run on 20 ounces of half strength Tailwind, a cookie, a shot of coke, a half a banana, and a pack and a half of Honey Stinger Chews. About 500 calories.
It was the furthest and longest that I’d ever run. And it may be the furthest I ever run, period. Who knows? The future is a fickle beast. But if it is, I feel like I can be proud of what I did. One cool January morning, I went out for a run and when I got back I earned a new title, ultrarunner.
Looking back on it, knowing the experiences I’ve had and how they compare to each other in my mind, I can say with certainty that though Boston was cool for a whole host of reasons, it didn’t hold a candle to Big Bend.
Boston was a hat, a t-shirt, jacket, finishers medal and bragging rights for life.
Big Bend was magical.
Bucket list: CHECK!
UPDATE: A week after the race, my leg is still black and blue but the scratches are healing. It took about four days for the swelling in my hand to finally go down and it still hurts to grip anything, including a pen. Thankfully, it’s not broken, but it’s seriously sprained.
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