“By mile 25, I was behind schedule by fifteen minutes, after pushing hard, knowing that I was behind. I started to get it: the Cactus Rose isn’t all roses.” – Rhonda Claridge
Colorado ultra athlete Rhonda Claridge, ran her first Texas trail adventure at the ruggedly beautiful Cactus Rose 100 in what is arguably the most beautiful running month in the region – October.
Rhonda went on to win Cactus Rose in 21:49:28 (race summary)! This was not without acquiring some new found respect for the distance.
Rhonda was gracious in sharing what attracts her to the 100 mile distance, the coyote pack experience as she neared the finish of Cactus Rose, and her upcoming adventures.
Running Background / Training
[EB - What is your running background? When did you start trail and ultra running and what led you to explore the sport?]
I started running (jogging) back when I was a chubby, cigarette-smoking teenager, during summers in the Bahamas, where I’m from originally. I moved to Telluride, Colorado, in 1992 and was introduced to a host of über-athletes, who, along with my husband, motivated me to take up mountain sports.
I paced Ricky Denesik and other friends in the Hardrock, and got a feel for endurance on some long MTB and ski adventures that sometimes went awry.
In 2007 I ran the Moab Alpine to Slickrock 50 mile race in the La Sal mountains: The sun rose, highlighting desert hoodoos; elk bugled; fall leaves colored the trail…I was hooked.
[EB - What does a typical training week look like for you? How much training on the trails? Do you do any type of cross training?]
I don’t have a strict training regimen and I don’t run a lot of miles per week.
By dint of where I live at 10,000 feet of elevation in the Southern Rockies, almost every run is a hill run. A peak training week, mid-summer, would be 60 miles of mountain running usually on single track, about 15,000 vertical feet of climbing, 100 miles of mountain biking and road riding, a couple of hikes with my dog and a few intense yoga classes.
In the winter, I run only about two days a week, but usually one long one, 18-20 miles, and the rest of the time I backcountry or skate ski.
We go to the Bahamas for a month every winter, and I surf, long-distance swim, and run the beaches. I do think there are some benefits to “muscle confusion” or mixing it up. I’m definitely never bored.
[EB - What about 100 mile races do you enjoy and what attracts you to the distance?]
I’m enjoying trying to figure them out. I’ve never been fast or skilled at anything, but my body seems to store and burn fuel well and I have a low metabolism, which helps for going long. I guess I’m an extremist, though nowadays running a 100 miles is becoming the mean. People are doing such incredible, truly extreme stuff.
I like sharing the experience with other runners. In the Big Horn 100 this year, I ran almost the whole race with Cory Johnson, and we saw each other go through different phases. On the second morning, when I caught up to him, he gave me this death-mask look and said, “I’m a walking zombie.” At the time it seemed hilarious; I laughed and he laughed.
What I really love is encountering wild landscapes and animals, hearing owls at night, passing a sleeping moose, moving through forests and along ridges…. It’s a surreal experience to see a tiny feature in the distance and then, many hours later, to see it up close and huge.
Four 100s – Four Months
[EB - Through a period of just over four months (June 17 - October 29), you ran Bighorn 100, Leadville 100, Slickrock 100, and Cactus Rose 100. You finished first or second female in all of these races! What is your approach to recovery, both mentally and physically, after each 100 and how do you get yourself ready to "Bring it!" a handful of weeks after the previous 100?]
I wish I had an intelligent answer or knew how to “Bring it!” Winging it is the truth. I’m 44 years old and I don’t know how much more time I can devote to ultrarunning, so this year I had a carpe diem attitude, trying to get in as much as I could. It was a huge indulgence and a lot of fun.
In July I flew to Spain, to the Basque Country, to race in the Ehunmilak, “The One Hundred”: 36,000 vertical ascent, a lot of off-trail, straight-up or straight-down terrain. I went out too fast, covering the first half in just over 12 hours, and made some rookie mistakes, like not refilling my Camelbak at two aid stations. I ended up dehydrated and falling over, and dropped at mile 70. The locals said it is tougher than the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. It was definitely an adventure.
I peaked in August, then returned to work, teaching at Colorado Mesa University, and had to back off training. I lost fitness in the recovery-train-taper-race-recovery cycle. Yoga, tempo runs, fartleks, and bike rides were about all I did between races after Leadville.
[EB - Was this your first trail race in Texas? What interested you in the Cactus Rose adventure?]
This was my first Texas race. I forgot that I wanted to run Cactus Rose. Then my friend Matt, who lives in Austin, called and left a message, “Are you coming to do that Bandera race?” I emailed, “Will you crew?” He had no idea what I was asking him to do.
After meeting me at aid stations for over 21 hours, getting little sleep, and stopping the car after the finish to witness my vomiting, he, no doubt, regretted making that call. He said he might do it again if I raced in Hawaii.
[EB - It was three weeks since your Slickrock 100 win, how was the body and mind feeling coming into your fourth 100 in a little over four months?]
My body felt fine, but I was a bit sleep deprived and busy in the weeks before the race.
[EB - At mile 25, you had experienced one complete loop of the course. What did you think of it? How would you compare it to other races you have done?]
I thought Cactus Rose would be easy: it’s low elevation, so I had an oxygen advantage; it’s supposedly just 7,200 feet of vertical (it seemed like 10,000). Ultrarunning rates it a five, the hardest, for technical difficulty. The race web site touts, “We have made every attempt to avoid what is flat and to find what is nasty,” and mentioned “blood, cuts, scrapes, and puke,” but that sounded like hyperbole.
The night before the race, a guy in a café told me the course was “not really runnable.” I thought: after the Ehunmilak, how hard could it be? Note to self: It’s a big mistake to go into a 100-miler thinking it will be easy because of the psychological ramifications when it isn’t.
By mile 15, I could tell my legs weren’t recovered or were just out of shape. The hills didn’t feel zippy.
We passed through a lot of yucca (?) with long cascading leaves that looked soft and benign. Around then, I noticed blood on my hands and looked down to see pinpricks of blood decorating the fronts of my legs. I remember thinking: Death by a thousand yucca lashes?
I’m usually good at predicting my splits and hitting them within five minutes. By mile 25, I was behind schedule by fifteen minutes, after pushing hard, knowing that I was behind. I started to get it: the Cactus Rose isn’t all roses.
[EB - What was your nutritional approach at Cactus Rose? How were your energy levels throughout the 100 miles?]
I ate Hammer gels, two bananas, a turkey sandwich, potato chips, Endurolyte capsules, and Succeed.
I got in a groove during the second and third laps. During the second lap, Anabel Pearson, who won the women’s 50-mile race, kept me company and shared her positive energy.
I have to confess it takes courage to turn around and head back out when other people are finishing.
The third lap came in the late afternoon when I usually perk up. A warm-hearted man from Waco, Pompillo Romero, ran with me for about ten miles. It was his first 100 and a spiritual journey. He prayed, and even prayed for me.
The sky turned an amazing blood orange, as it does in Texas. I tried to cover as many miles as I could before it got dark. All the way to mile 92, I felt good.
[EB - You were the lead female within the early miles and had created a sizeable gap by mile 50. How did you keep yourself motivated and pushin' throughout the final 50 miles?]
I learned the hard way in Spain not to pay much attention to where other women are or what place I am in. I have to find my own pace and hope it will turn out okay.
In Cactus Rose, there were people running the 50 and relayers running the 100, so it was hard to tell what was happening.
I was hoping to break the women’s record and that forced me out of my comfort zone. I also felt obligated not to keep my friend Matt up all night.
The other runners were very motivating. Since we kept passing each other, we could banter a bit. Steven Moore, who won and broke his own record, joked, around mile 77, “I hope you cleared all of the rocks out of the way.”
[EB - What were some of your strongest memories across the 21+ hour scamper? What were some of your biggest challenges you had to overcome?]
Because it occurs around Halloween, the Cactus Rose is also a costume contest. The coolest costumes were the human-sized prickly pears. The scariest was the guy with two holes in his forehead and real blood running down his face. (I heard he was okay but had to drop.)
To be honest, my run didn’t end with much style. Around mile 92, my stomach soured. The Cactus Rose is sort of self-support: aid stations guarantee only water and ice. I missed Matt at the last aid station and discovered just a mini Snicker’s bar in my pocket, which I didn’t feel like eating. I had less than 50 minutes to run the last five miles if I was going to break the women’s record, and I realized that that was unlikely given the terrain and how I was feeling.
Alone in the woods around 1 a.m., I heard five or six coyotes barking excitedly right behind me. I picked up a stick, succumbing to the paranoid thought that if some coyotes were going to take down a human, now would be a good time. Something ran across the trail in front and caught my headlamp: an armadillo or a wild pig. I stumbled along. When I broke out of the trees, I threw away the stick and ran to the finish.
The race director, Joe Prusaitis, and the winner, Steven Moore, were very gracious in congratulating me personally when I came in. Steven offered me a beer; Joe gave me my prize (a tall sharp metal rose that would have ripped a hole in my luggage if I had tried to transport it back) and suggested I sit in a warm tent. Meanwhile, the blood drained out of my face. I maintained composure until we drove away and then I asked Matt to stop the car.
After the finish I told Joe that the experience was “kind of sadistic,” but already I remember it more rosily: the thin crescent moon, Pompillo’s son running alongside us wild with pride, possums staring back from tree limbs, the pretty groves of yucca. It’s funny how that happens.
[EB - Do you have any running events planned for the rest of the year or early next? Any other trail adventures on your radar you would like to experience but haven't yet?]
I think I’m going to run a marathon in the Bahamas in January.
My award for finishing first female in the Slickrock 100 was free entry to the Mohican 100, so I will probably do that next summer. I’d like to try the Hardrock again sometime.
A special thanks to Rhonda for sharing with the Endurance Buzz community!
Can’t say it enough…lots of great people in this sport!
Be active – Feel the buzz!
David – EnduranceBuzz.com