Bandera 50K, Bandera, TX 3,5

Elevation Gain: 1310'; High Point: 1925'

January 8, 2011 - What began as a great day to run a 100K concluded as a great day to complete a 50K. After the sub-freezing conditions of 2010 the mild 40 to 60 degree temperatures of 2011 were a welcome reprieve from the snowy cold of winter training in Pennsylvania. Last year's event saw me tripping and falling hard five times and retreating from an otherwise satisfying finish of the 100K as a bloody wreck of an old man. Last year was marred, too, with severe Achilles tendonitis which I have since gotten past. This year's aim was to ease back on the throttle, lift the feet better, and avoid all injurious ground encounters that take the spontaneity out of racing. After severely rupturing my Achilles in March and spending three months in a boot, this year's challenge would be a test of the ongoing rehab of my heel/leg and return to effective racing. Wearing my lightest trail shoes - Brooks Cascadias - and solely training on rocky, rooty, and hilly trails for the weeks leading up to the event, I came prepared to run a sub-13-hour 100K on these rugged trails in good form.

The start was relaxed, at least for me. Some of the race horses up front who were here to contend for the National Championship distinction were probably stoked to go out fast, but I hung in the back of the field and was chit-chatting when the starter gave us the go-ahead. I've got a ready excuse for running slower - I'm old! Running from the back at the start is a fairly new experience, however. Maybe that's what old runners are supposed to do. My legs have seen many a start at a sub-five-minute tempo, jockeying for position before the trail turns to single track. There is a surprising feeling of control, however, to knowing you have the training and ability to go out fast, but can afford to hold back on the reins and wait for the right moment to hit the go button later on down the trail.

With most of the field ahead of me I walked for the most part up the first climb to the top of Sky Island behind a steady queue of gregarious walkers. There seemed to be no hurry, so I got into a good hiking rhythm and got to know those around me. By mile four, after a bit of slow jogging, I was still walking anytime we came to any incline, before cresting Ice Cream Hill. Still, no worries. The downhill grade into the first aid station at Nachos stretched out the field and I worked into a comfortable ten-minute pace. The Texas sotol made its mark on everyone's bare legs, but at least it didn't sting like the nettles of the northeast. Leg lift was good. No falls. No fatigue. All systems go.

It was smooth sailing through Chapas back to Crossroads. Taking a gel every three miles and electrolytes after Nachos my legs were flush with energy, so I proceeded evenly over Three Sisters, running uphill more than last year, feeling good. Still no falls. The weather was fine, but I kept watching a forecasted front to the south that was to deliver a rainy punch later in the day. There was some urgency to getting through to the finish before the predicted deluge started, but it didn't affect my plan to run evenly.

The loop back to Crossroads went quickly before I proceeded up over Lucky Peak to cruise into the Last Chance aid station in good shape. After reluctantly turning down a shot of either scotch or tequila (until the second round), I took it easy climbing Cairn's Climb and paid close attention on top of Boyle's Bump where I had gotten lost on the second go-round there last year. I was determined to have a clear mental map of the course so that there would be no repeat of my disorientation in the dark. From there it was an easy jaunt back to the start and halfway point at the Lodge.

Eyeing my watch I could see I was a half-hour ahead of last year's pace even though it seemed I was running more deliberately, purposefully taking my time. The trail seemed considerably easier this year than last - not as chopped up from hoof prints in the mud. I felt great coming through 50K in 5:47:31 for a good first half. I traded out some supplies, sought out a hug from Olga Varlamova, and quickly transitioned out of the aid station to chase the back half of the course.

I had been moving ahead of most of those I had run back and forth with during the first half. I felt as I probably looked - stronger than those around me. Without thinking much about it I went up over Sky Island quicker than the first time around, with no one in front of me to hinder my flow. Somewhere on the down side of Sky Island something didn't feel right, however. I began feeling woozy and my legs quickly turned to jelly, like when your stomach is sick. My wheels quickly came off; seemingly out of nowhere I went down for the count. I didn't fall; I just sat down on the ground, then laid down with a race-stopping dizziness. I was too concerned with the sudden development of this new circumstance to think much about continuing with the race.

As I laid there somewhat disoriented, I watched all those I had run with and spoken to pass me by. The amount of compassion and empathy among fellow ultra runners never fails to impress me. Suffering is a mark we all share. There was no way I could continue. After attempting to get up a couple times, I couldn't even get off the deck to walk. I asked several concerned runners to notify the aid station at Nachos - still a couple miles away - that I was in trouble, but that I thought I could somehow shuffle back, in time. Rescue was not even a remote consideration. I would have to get out of there on my own.

I laid still awhile with my eyes closed until I felt something moving rusting in the leaf litter under my head. Rolling over to see what all the commotion was about I discovered I had probably warmed up a little orange butterfly enough to inspire it to flutter its wings and take flight. I took this as a sign that it was time for me to take flight as well. Managing to get to my feet I began to stumble forward, pausing to sit on a rock a couple of times, taking my time to avoid falling while the dizziness abated.

Soon after I was able to walk, I looked down at my cold, clammy hands and was shocked to find they were both as blue as my running jersey. Damn, I knew this was not right. Even hypothermia at this temperature wouldn't cause that. I immediately recognized this as hypoxia - I wasn't getting enough oxygen to my extremities. The dizziness could probably be attributed to the same cause. Purposefully hyperventilating to capture more oxygen I did a carotid pulse check and found it to be barely in the twenties. Double Damn. The scientist in me began to analyze and seek explanation as I continued to stagger gently up over Ice Cream Hill.

Before reaching Nachos for rescue, a volunteer named Phyllis jogged back to offer assistance and walk me in. As a cardio nurse in real life, when she wasn't running marathons and such, we compared notes and both agreed this matter deserved further attention. Feeling better with each step, I was lucid enough to enjoy our conversation and her pleasant company on the stroll back to the aid station, but also astute enough to know any second effort to attempt to finish the 100K at this point would be inconsequential, if not stupid, in light of this episode. So I abandoned the course, got a nice hug from my new favorite aid station volunteer, and joined fellow dnf'er Brad in RD Joe's truck for a return ride to the Lodge by a super considerate volunteer named Mark, who stopped at Crossroads so that Brad and I could pick up our drop bags first.

Back at the Lodge I turned in my chip and bugged out after collecting my gear and changing into something dry. The temperature was 60 plus degrees and it still had not rained as I pulled away from the hills of Bandera, regretting how things had gone, but overall satisfied with my effort, my Achilles, and my time for 50K. With further analysis and subsequent training to test my heart under stressful conditions I have been able to draw a conclusion from what happened and am satisfied with it for the time being. Even my doctor agrees after a consult. When I stopped at the Lodge, in the spirit of experimentation I consumed one of those little red 5-hour energy drinks you see on the counter of any convenience store, containing vitamins, caffeine and what-not. My thinking in retrospect is that this supplement somehow triggered a reaction that crashed my system. Other than the high count of pollen for the cedar trees, I don't see any other variable that could have impacted me so quickly and dramatically. A tough lesson. I won't use one of those again.

My running weekend was extended by two days at the Atlanta airport, waiting for a nasty ice storm to clear. I experienced absolutely no muscular soreness or Achilles tenderness while biding my time at the airport - which tells me I was properly conditioned and running conservatively enough within my capability. If I am wrong about my diagnosis and ever end up on a gurney with the same symptoms, I guess I'll reevaluate.

Can't say enough good things about this race, its super Race Director and volunteers. If I lived closer I wouldn't miss an event. It is one venue that is likely to get more and more attention from the growing number of trail enthusiasts around the country. Deservedly!

Link to Course Map