Standing at the top of Sky Island with my good friend Rob, who came in from Colorado to run Cactus Rose for his first 50 mile adventure…
Looking around at the rolling and rugged beauty of Texas Hill Country, I couldn’t help but think of the following question.
“Why would anyone want to run 50 miles?”
The answer came quickly as my mind blended with the sunrise and glow of the surrounding hills.
“This is why.”
I have been down to the Hill Country State Natural Area, home of two Texas trail adventures, Cactus Rose and Bandera, a number of times. I have only raced on the Bandera course, so this would be my first go at the Cactus Rose 50.
My last two race adventures have included puking (pacing at Leadville) and a pretty sweet toe-crushing digger (Reveille). I was ready to dial in a consistent effort from start to finish on what is likely the most rugged course we have in Texas. Plus I was pretty stoked to see Rob cross that finish line for his first 50 mile finish.
Race morning was calm and cool. Perfect running conditions.
At 5:00AM, race director, Joe Prusaitis, sent us off on the 50 mile or 100 mile journey. One main 25 mile loop. Alternate between clockwise and counter-clockwise loops. Get it done! And one more thing, this race has a minimalist aid station vibe where the aid stations (every 4-5 miles) will have only water and likely no volunteers. Equestrian has a slightly different vibe thanks to the no-frills compassion of Olga and Larry King who will be seen helping and gently kickin’ runners on down the trail as only they can. If you know Olga, you know what I am talking about. For a number of runners, their kindness saved their race.
Mile 0 – 15
So off we go, a string of lights along a wide dirt road/trail of sorts before we funnel into the single-track. Rob slowly drifted ahead of me as I simply tried to find a nice easy rhythm. On a short little step-down, my nutrition popped out of my running vest pocket so I hit the breaks, picked up my goodies, pulled off the trail, and decided to take off my thin jacket as well.
Back in the conga line it wasn’t long before a fun little rock-littered grunt up the first little climb, Lucky Peak. Steady hike. Step. Step. Done. Down the backside for some nice steady runnable terrain.
Briefly stopped at Equestrian (mile 4.5, hit twice per loop) aid station to get rid of jacket and fill up my water bottle.
The next five miles is a mix of open field and wooded running. Smooth and steady.
Basic nutritional plan was ~250 cals per hour and two Endurolytes. Tick tock…feeling good.
Drink. Eat. Breathe. Run.
In what seemed like a deep breath later, I was back at Equestrian aid station, now mile 14.5.
Filled both water bottles and headed to my drop bags for more nutrition. There was Rob grabbing some goodies as well.
Rob and I headed out together to start what would be the toughest 20 miles of the race.
Mile 15 – 25
This 10 miles contains the majority of the climbing per loop.
After leaving Equestrian you quickly arrive on some smaller hills called the 3 Sisters. The razor sharp Sotol were quite healthy in this section of the course. As you bush-wacked through them, you could feel slight resistance to your forward movement as their sharp “teeth” along the leaves would drag across your legs. It was not uncommon to see some blood on many runners legs, not from taking a digger in the loose, rocky sections of the course, but from the Sotol plant.
Off to my favorite climb of the course, Sky Island. I simply love the views on top of this one. Magical. Rob and I did a quick tourist stop and soaked up the imagery before heading down and starting the next climb, Boyles Bump.
During the power hike up Boyles, I gradually separated from Rob as he had mentioned he usually goes through a slower period around 20 miles.
The next three miles back to the Lodge included another climb, Cairn’s Climb, and was also a time where I saw many familiar faces running back towards me on their second loop. Everyone providing support to each other. Couldn’t help but feel a little adrenaline rush but knew I had to keep the effort under control as I had to turnaround and run back through those climbs I just finished.
Back at The Lodge and 25 miles complete!
Swapped out shoes. Grabbed 10 miles worth of nutrition and filled the bottles. I was moving with a slight sense of urgency and left the aid station with a race time of 5:25.
Mile 25 – 35.5
I wasn’t too far on the reverse loop when I say Rob on his way to The Lodge looking steady and strong. I gave a couple supportive yelps. He said he was doing well and feeling good. Happy for him.
The reverse trip back to Equestrian Aid Station was a pretty simple journey. Walk the longer climbs and run everything else. The bigger downhills on the backside of the climbs felt a lot looser going this direction. Not sure if this was simply the legs getting fatigued but it sure felt like I had to concentrate a lot more to keep from going Superman.
More bloodletting at the 3 Sisters before arriving back at Equestrian.
Olga and Larry were now crackin’ the compassionate whip and keeping everyone movin’. Enjoyed a brief chat with Olga as I filled my water bottles, another 10 miles of nutrition, and down the trail I went.
Mile 35.5 – 45.5
These 10 miles were the toughest ones for me. Leaving Equestrian I was having to walk a bit more of the easy stuff. I remember this section on the first loop being fairly flat. Apparently I forgot about Ice Cream Hill and it was more than happy to reintroduce itself to me. That became a slow, slow grunt up and over.
Lots of runnable within this 10 miles but it became more walking than what I would have desired but I went with what I had and just tried to keep moving forward. It was fun to see Steven Moore (100 mile winner and new course record) cruising on loop 3 and Brian Hopton-Jones in chase. Both looking extremely well. I was likely in walk mode, eating. If you can’t run, might as well eat. A different race at the front versus the middle-of-pack.
The return to the final Equestrian visit felt like it would never be in sight.
For a while I felt like I was lost.
Well this isn’t the road I thought it was.
Where is Equestrian?
I feel like I am running away from the aid station.
Then there is was in the distance. An oasis in the desert. An oasis at Cactus Rose…Equestrian.
Olga asked if I need anything. I jokingly and mistakenly said, “a drive back to the Lodge.”
Then I got the look…
Quickly say something else.
“I am feeling great Olga. Legs were just a little flat over the last 10 miles.” Along with a big smile.
Olga then said, “Well get out of here, this guy (another person in the aid station) is going to pass you.”
Down the trail I went.
Mile 45.5 – 50 (Finish)
The legs were coming back and I was able to put together some solid run segments. This section was really rather nicely groomed. Power hiked a couple risers before the last grunt, Lucky Peak. I looked at my watch and thought, dang, the finish is close.
I thought I maybe could break 11 hours? So I pushed.
Steady hike up Lucky. Managed the rock graveyard on the backside.
Then ran like a bear was chasing me. Problem was I didn’t realize it was over a mile to the finish.
Passed one dude that was always a little ways in front of me all day.
As I caught and passed, I told him, “Let’s finish this off strong!”
The trail kept going…another bend…kept going…another bend…
Sub-11 won’t happen but I kept a nice tempo effort to the finish and crossed the line in 11:06:17.
Rob earned his 50 mile finish as well!
Tired and happy!
Lap Splits (per my watch):
- 5:25:50 – lap 1
- 5:40:27 – lap 2
Thanks Joe, Joyce, Henry, Kyle, Olga, Larry, and all the other volunteers and people involved with the event! A huge thanks to my wife, Wendy, who took care of our tribe as I was out playing in the dirt.
An adventure not soon forgotten.
- Enjoyed the course and minimally supported format.
- Low training mileage (30 miles/week or less) can still get me a comfortable 50 mile finish. I worked with what life allowed me and stayed within my fitness level as much as possible on race day.
- Left a few minutes on the trail during my low spot during loop two. Maybe could have used a few more calories??
- Life is good!
Be active – Feel the buzz!
David – EnduranceBuzz.com