On Friday, April 10th, I packed the van full of camping gear and headed out to Graford, TX to camp out on the beach that would be the starting line the next morning where Endurance Buzz Adventures was holding their Possum Kingdom 20k/56k/52mi trail race. It wasn’t because I just like to hear excited runners getting up way before the sunshine does and go run through the woods like crazy loons; it was because I am one of those crazy loons that gets up and runs early in the morning. Saturday morning, I was going to attempt to run a 52 mile run through the woods around beautiful Possum Kingdom Lake, my furthest running distance yet.
My little home for the night:
The view from my front “door”:
Some of the neighbors were hanging out to see what was happening:
The sunset from my back window:
Saturday morning, I set my alarm for 5:30 so I could get over to packet pickup and get everything together before starting my run, stretch out my legs and make some breakfast. About 2am, I realized that, like every other race I run, I don’t sleep very well. My head was noisy thinking about running the distance along with every other possible thing that I could be thinking about. Plus, I had just taken my second test to get A+ certified the day before so my head was getting ready for the next test in my school plan. I ended up peeling myself out of bed at 5 to use the bathroom and go ahead over to the packet tent and get the day started. I was full of energy and ready to get this goal accomplished.
After getting my bib and t-shirt and pinning it on, getting dressed and getting ready to run, I couldn’t find the appetite I needed to make breakfast so I sat in the car for a half hour to try and get my head quiet and focused before heading over to the start line. I met up with my training partner/great friend, Rodica, at the start line and listened to the trail briefing by the Race Director, Dave, and talked a little about our plans for the race and normal nervous chit-chat before the start. The race was to start in five minutes which seemed more like 20 with the nerves kicking in. Rodica and I planned to run the first 17 mile loop together where I would move ahead for my next two loops. She was running her first ultra at this race, the 56k.
7am: The timing clock starts up and we all hit start on our watches and start running up the chute toward the woods. We started our run nice and slow for the first mile with another friend at her pace so we wouldn’t go out too fast. That first mile is a pretty gradual uphill that is easy to push too hard on and wear your legs out. That and the sand you encounter pretty soon after getting started (and more times elsewhere on the course than I would like to have seen) are great if you’re looking for muscle fatigue. After a mile, we picked up the pace a little and settled into our groove. I also started to get wrapped up in my head and self doubt about covering the distance, even though I was sure that I could do it. The next mile or so is a pretty steady uphill climb to the top of a hill. We did the smart thing and walked the steep inclines so we could save the energy for the duration of the race.
Once you get to the top of the hill, you take the trail for about half a mile around the peak where you can see beautiful views of the lake and cabins/houses that surround it. There are little places to stop and sit on a bench to take it all in but we were there to run so we would just look as we ran by. There are a lot of little up and downs on the course around there before you start your decent back down to the main trail.
4.x miles: This is the first aid station of the course. It is more of a table on the side of the road with water and Heed coolers for you to fill up your water bottles but it is integral to running a race of any distance. See, it’s hard to wrap your head around a long distance on the trail if you think about it in terms of running 52 miles or 35 miles. Really, it’s pretty hard to think about even if you’re running the 12 miles. Taking it in little bites makes it easier to think about. I say this now but I was struggling in my head to break it down like that. We didn’t stop at the table this time but I made a mental note about it because it meant we only had a little over two miles left to the next aid station. Those miles were through my least favorite part of the course, the rock field, where you run through the woods but there are large rocks embedded in the terrain that wear you out pretty quickly from the jumping and climbing. My legs felt great and I felt like we were making good time.
6.42 miles, D&D Aid Station: This stop is the first aid station where we saw actual people. One of my favorite parts of running races put on by Dave is that the volunteers are always fantastic. They are runners themselves and know what you need at all stages of the race. We stopped for a quick refill of my pack and Rodica’s water bottle, had a couple orange slices and other small snacks and headed back onto the trail. We also checked to see how each other were doing physically and off we went on our next four miles to the next station.
10.46 miles, La Villa Aid Station: One thing can be said about this race is that you certainly cover terrain that seems like you’ve run over different parts of Texas all in one race. You have the rock field, you have groomed trails that go up hills, you have a desert looking area to cross. There are short, steep climbs and downhills along with lots of areas where the trail gets narrow and you’re just running through light woods. It is a beautiful trail! For me, the 4.04 miles to this aid station seems like the longest. I don’t know if it’s because the terrain changes so much in that four miles or if it’s just a mental thing, but it always seemed like the hardest. The people at La Villa were a sight for sore eyes, for sure. This time, we took a little more time to get food and refill our water. I was hungry at this point so the offering of beef jerky was perfect, along with the other pound of food that I ate. I even made a comment that I felt like a pregnant woman because all I wanted was jerky, pickles and potatoes. If they had ice cream there, I would have take them up on that as well. We stocked up, did another check on ourselves and headed back out on the trails. My legs were getting tired at this point but I still felt like I had a lot to give and felt generally good about making the distance. I was still battling with breaking the run down into small segments in my head, though, and I felt like that was going to be my demise.
14.92 miles, D&D again: When we came around to D&D this time, the drinking had caught up with me and I really had to go to the bathroom. I also wanted to wash my face because of all the salt. I handed my pack to one of the volunteers so they could fill it and walked over to the bathroom. I doused my face with water, talked to myself in the mirror to try and get out of my head and went over to the table. I had a plan: I was going to take a cup of soda at D&D every time that I went through. We were a little over 2 miles from the start/finish area which would make half way for Rodica and 1/3 for me. We thanked the volunteers and headed out for the shortest segment that had the most reward.
17.35 miles, Bug Beach/Start-Finish line (3:37): No matter how tired you are, coming around the corner after you cross the road heading toward Bug Beach and hearing the spectators and fellow runners cheering for you kicks out some adrenaline. You come out of the woods and run the 1/8 mile to the finish line with people all clapping and cheering you on. It’s also the sense of relief that you have made it through a great portion of the race. We stopped here, talked to the people we knew, hung out at the aid station and refilled our water and bellies. After you go through the aid station, you have to do this little loop of the area to get the mileage right. It adds .1 miles to the run to do this little loop but I sometimes think it’s something Dave does just to torture us a little bit and watch our reaction. Rodica and I walked that loop together and ran up the road toward the edge of the woods where I told her to have a good rest of her race and headed out in front. I still walked the uphills like we had been but went a little more aggressively on the flats and downhills. I was careful to not push too hard because I knew I still had over 30 miles to go and didn’t want to burn out.
23.87 miles, D&D: I was finally starting to get out of my funky thoughts and was making some decent ground here but was extremely happy to see the folks at the aid station. I was starting to have some issues with my feet hurting from pounding on rocks on the downhills so I wanted to stop and take care of them. I had tried new shoes on this race and, while I loved them, they weren’t really made for beating my toes up on the rocks. I had my regular shoes in my drop bag at La Villa so I just wanted to make it there so I could change shoes and get back to what I was familiar with. I adhered to my soda drinking at this stop, refilled my water, ate a metric ton at the buffet and headed back onto the trail. The only trouble I had in my head was remembering that this next four miles was the longest to me and I really wasn’t looking forward to it. I spent that distance with some other runners I had found on the course and talked to them and tried to keep my mind from focusing on the time I had to go. It worked for the most part but I was happy when it was finished.
27.91 miles, La Villa: I came in to La Villa and couldn’t be happier. The volunteers at the aid station were extremely happy to take my pack and fill it while I darted to my drop bag and grabbed my shoes and a new pair of socks. One of the volunteers and I talked about how we had never changed socks or shoes during a race and I was excited to see how this was going to work out. Putting those new socks on were like stuffing clouds under my feet. It was so refreshing that I just wanted to stand there and soak it in. The bad part is that I wouldn’t have finished the race if I just stood there so I grabbed some food, put my pack back on and headed back up the trail. I had met two runners that I kept playing leap frog with, Jeff and Angela, and decided to stay behind them. We all were doing the “run the flats and downhills and walk the uphills” so it worked out pretty well. We kept a decent pace until Angela kicked a cactus and ended up with a very large thorn piercing her toe. I did what any trail runner would do and got on my hands and knees and bit the end of the thorn to take it out. That warranted us all taking the time to officially know each other’s names. We carried on our intervals until we made it back to D&D.
32.37 miles, D&D: At this point, the three of us were pretty anxious to get back to Bug Beach so we could say we had completed our second loop so the stop here was pretty quick. We filled up our water, I drank some soda and had some orange slices and PBJ sandwiches and we headed out to take on the rock field. Just the two and a half miles left to be 2/3 of the way completed and, for me, to start my counter for the longest distance I had run to date. I was getting pretty excited but my knees were starting to get tired from all of the pounding they had been taking. I was still ready to go!
34.8 miles, bug beach (7:29): We had made it through the second lap! There was a huge sense of accomplishment but I really wanted to take the time to stretch and get myself ready for the last loop. Last year, when I ran the 56k, I finished and told myself that the people who went out for a third loop were crazy. This year, I was the crazy one. We hadn’t been stopped at the aid station for long before the first place runner of the 52 mile race came across the finish line. It was pretty amazing to see her run in and it picked up the energy to push forward. I knew that Rodica had been about ten minutes behind me at La Villa and she was going to take it slower for the 7 miles back to the finish line so I told Dave and Eric to congratulate her when she comes across for me. The knowledge that she was about to finish her first ultra filled me with pride and gave me a huge push to get started on the next loop so we all stretched, ate another huge amount of food and headed out. By the time I made it to the unattended aid station four miles from the start, my little pain in my knees had turned into a pretty big one. I was having trouble braking on the downhills and was generally uncomfortable on the flats. I still had lots of power to push the uphills but that was about it. Even the sand, which I thought would give some relief from the pounding, was uncomfortable to run on.
41.32 miles, D&D: I came into the station this time and was hurting. I had been pushing myself on the flats and uphills but my knees were getting really sore by now. When I got to the aid station, I handed my pack to the volunteer and asked for a bag with some ice so I could put it on my knees. I sat on a rock for five or ten minutes, applying ice and drinking soda. I knew I needed to keep moving if I wanted to finish so I got up, washed my face, ate some food and headed out for La Villa. The good thing was that I had finally talked myself into taking things stop to stop but I was struggling. I texted Libby, one of my closest friends, who had also directed her own race that day and told her that my legs felt done and I was struggling. She simply replied with, “Well… Good thing your mind is stronger than your legs!” I can’t think of anything better that could have been said to me at that point. It was time to push on. I only had 11 miles left to go. I tried to push on the ups and on the flats to keep my time under control but the flats were giving me a lot of discomfort now too. I ran a couple of segments when I could but mostly power walked. I still had a decent pace for walking because my legs felt strong but I slowed down considerably for the downs because the pain of braking had become unbearable. Four miles to go and I would be down to seven miles. I could do this!
49.82 miles, La Villa and my encounter with my guardian angel: I walked around the corner where I could hear the commotion for La Villa Aid station and I saw Rodica there cheering me on. I was happy to see her in such good spirits after finishing her race! I was also very proud and happy I could tell her congrats in person. I went to go sit and change my socks again and check on the status of my toes because my braking had moved from my using my quads to my using the fronts of my shoes with straight legs and they were taking a beating. I sprayed my feet clean with my water bottle and put on the new socks. The volunteers got me a chair and I had a nice seat while eating food that was being brought over to me. Rodica asked if I wanted her to walk with me to D&D which, as much as I wanted to decline because I knew she had just finished her first ultra and it was asking a lot, I think whatever spilled out of my mouth was enough for her to decide to run me the rest of the way in. I was having trouble thinking of what to eat at this point so I just grabbed a few things and we went off to walk that last 7 miles. We talked about her race and how she felt and I told her about the pain I was having and she ensured me it would be alright. We started figuring out the math, too, to make sure I would still be able to complete the race with my new slower pace. The more we walked away from the aid station, the worse my knees got and the harder it was for me to take the declines. There was some point on this 4.5 mile stretch that we decided it was easier for me to take the downhills walking backwards since I still had the power to take the inclines. It was ugly but it worked. She pushed me and supported me the whole way there.
49.82 miles, D&D for the last time: I needed ice. That was the first thing to come out of Rodica’s mouth when we made it to the aid station. I was hurting badly but determined that I was going to finish this race. I was soooo close that I knew I had to do it. We only had a few little up and down hills and the rock field to go through but we were going to make it. I hung out and iced my knees while my pack was filled and I ate potatoes and some more delicious beef jerky. I also drank the last of the Mountain Dew out there to give myself energy for that last two miles. I iced until I felt like I was good and we headed out for the last two miles.
52.25 miles, the finish line (13:16): I don’t really remember much about that last two miles because I was so focused on the conversations we were having to keep my mind from thinking about how far we had to go. I do remember thinking about what I had thought was an unnecessary loop and the fact that it was starting to get dark and we had no lights to see the trail. I also remember thinking about how lucky I was to have such a great friend there with me after finishing her ultra and walking seven miles with me and pushing me to complete my longest race yet. We came out of the woods after walking across the street and could hear the cheers of the folks that were still hanging around the finish line. I think Rodica was as excited about my finish as I was which made me feel like running down the home stretch but my knees disagreed with that idea so we walked it in. I was met with a handshake and hug from Dave and the coveted honey with a clay PK stamp award. I finished. I was done with my goal. It wasn’t pretty, but it was done. I went to see some medics who wrapped up my knees with ice packs and then sat in a chair with a beverage and we waited for the last runner to come in. Not long after that, Rodica headed back home and I wobbled to my tent to crash for the night. It had been a long and rewarding day but sleep was calling and I wasn’t going to delay that request.
I have had a week now to go through my thoughts about the race and how it all went. The first thing that I think about is how fantastic the aid stations are. There were many times that I would have been happy to quit if I didn’t have such good support from complete strangers. They all know the right things to say and to do to make you feel like you can do it. That is one of the many areas where Dave gets it perfectly right, every time. There isn’t enough I can say to express how appreciative of that I am. I also think about how much I like the challenge of that course and that race. I wasn’t so happy about it when I was in my tent with ice packs taped to my knees but that’s why I take a little more time to write out my thoughts so I can focus on the positives instead. Saving the best for last is friends. I am new to this whole making friends thing so I feel like I make more mistakes than I get right but I have some pretty fantastic friends who made it possible for me to finish this race. Libby for being there to push me along when she had spent the day directing her own race and was likely exhausted and Rodica who walked me in for my finish after running 35 miles out there herself earlier that day. Let me repeat that; walked me in for seven miles after completing her first ultra of 35 miles on the same terrain. I couldn’t walk to the car very well when I finished last year so I couldn’t imagine doing what she did.
Would I do this race again? You bet your ass I would. For now, though, I will continue my season and try to continually improve and take care of myself so I don’t get to a place where I’m having to walk down hills butt first. Nobody wants to see that.