Perdenales Falls 60K Race Report

Last Tuesday, I was sitting in the breakroom at TreeHouse when I recieved an email from Endurance Buzz saying that there was a 60K (37.5 mile) race in Perdenales Falls State Park on Saturday night.  It was to be the first of four races in the Captain Carl’s Night Race Series.  For some reason, I knew I would give it a try almost immediately even though my training hasn’t been nearly enough for a 60K.  I have only been running around 20 miles per week lately, and my long run of the year has only been 14 miles, but I thought, “If the wheels fall off, I’ll just drop out.   Why not try?”

So I showed up in the parking lot Saturday evening at about 5:30pm, an hour and a half before the start of the race.  It was about 97 degrees at the time, but would cool off to about 95 by race time.  The race would consist of two 18.8 mile loops around the park on single-track and jeep trail.  The below picture is pretty well representative of the whole course.

It was a fairly hilly, very rocky trail the whole way.  There was only one or two stretches (less than two miles each) of what I call “cruiser grade” where you could open up and drop in a few sub 8 minute miles.  For most of the run you are either dancing around ankle-breaking rocks, climbing, or trying to negotiate a steep and rocky descent.  I don’t want to overstate the course (I know there are plenty of ultra courses that are tougher), but it was a reasonably challenging and moderately technical course to be sure.

A Run Through The Woods – Miles 0 through 20

As most of you know, I used to run track at Texas A&M University.  While I was only a mediocre runner in college, that competitive instinct can still be fairly pronounced if I am not careful.  I realized that probably the worst thing that could happen to me would be to try to race someone who has been running trail ultras for years. Admitting to myself that I was in way over my head (I have never run anywhere near this far in my whole life), I positioned myself at the very back of the starting line with the slow people.  That way, once I finally did get free from the pack, the lead group would be way too far ahead to worry about.  Out of sight, out of mind as they say.  At mile 1, I was somewhere near last place.  It would turn out to be a very good decision.

The trail leaves the parking area and descends quickly to the river by way of single-track trail.  Once by the river, there was roughly one mile of boulder hopping and rock ledge scrambling (see top picture) before climbing out of the river valley onto a long stretch of rolling but very straight jeep trail that follows the boundary of the park.  I bided my time for the first four miles or so, just slowly working my way past people as it felt easy and convenient… no real hurry at this point.  I finally ended up running side by side with an older gentleman (58) named Bob.  He was quite an accomplished runner and had dozens and dozens of ultras under his belt.  I would find out later that he actually qualified for the Western States 100 (the defacto championship of ultrarunning in America) twice.  I figured it would be a smart idea to run with a veteran and learn what I could.  So Bob and I ran together for 7+ miles chatting easily and eating up miles.

At somewhere around mile 11, I stopped at an aid station to refill my hydration pack and I never saw Bob again.  He would go on to have  a very good run (9th place).  From here on out, I ran the race alone.  I had run for about two hours and over 13.5 miles before it got dark, at which point I had to don a headlamp for the rest of the race.  I’m glad I had a good couple of hours on the course in the daylight to see what I was in for, because navigating the rocky trails in the dark with just the headlamp was certainly a challenge.  The good thing about the sun descending was that the temperatures did the same.  Once the darkness was upon us, the temperatures dropped from the 90s and into the 80s quickly and were into the upper 70s by the time I finished.  The challenge for the first two hours was avoiding overheating.  The challenges for the next 5ish hours would be hydration, nutrition, electrolytes, and pain management.

I finished the first loop in roughly 2 hours and 54 minutes (roughly 9:21/mile including stops at aid stations).  I stopped at the big aid station at the half way point for several minutes to refill on gels & electrolyte tablets from my drop bag, top off my hydration pack, and eat a half a peanut butter & jelly sandwich before hitting the trail again at 2 hours 57 minutes.  I was surprised that I had made it halfway in under three hours, but at this point I had run very controlled and very within my means.  However, with my longest run of the past 9 months being 14 miles, I was about to go somewhere physically and psychologically that I have not been before.

Descent into Hell – Miles 20 through 25

Mile 20 was the beginning of some of the worst physical suffering I have ever been through.  I thought about quitting for virtually every step for the next 10 miles.  Immediately after descending again into the river bed my left quad began cramping so bad I could barely walk.  I looked down at it with my headlamp and it was quivering and spasming like one of those alien movies where some nefarious life form has invaded your body and is about to erupt out of your skin.  I quickly ruled that out as a likely scenario, and tried to keep moving while massaging my leg vigorously.  The pain was so intense it was difficult not cry out on every step.  I realized I still had almost 18 miles to go (further than I had run all year) and wondered it I should just go ahead and drop out now.  It was only a little over a mile back to the aid station with a nice chair to sit in and all the ice-cold Gatorade, PB&J, and bananas I could want.

“Think Jason, think!”  I told myself.  “What causes cramps?”  I reviewed my hydration and nutrition for last three hours.  I had been taking a gel and a salt tablet every 30 mins as is recommended,  but I realized that in these hot conditions my body was probably going through electrolytes much faster than usual.  So I pulled out two salt-electrolyte pills and took them both at once and kept walking.  Within two minutes, the cramp went away and I was running again.  Bingo!

I was now on the long, hilly stretch by the boundary of the park again.  Somewhere around mile 22 I was beginning to feel good again and picked up my pace to try to make up for lost time ( a few people had passed me while I worked through my cramp issues).  I crested a hilltop after a pretty steep climb and opened up my stride to let gravity carry me down the descent.  Somehow, I had missed a root in the dark and just as I was reaching good speed I suddenly found myself falling face-first downhill in the dark.

My chest was the first thing to hit the rocky trail, and it knocked the wind out of me.  I rolled over and layed on my back for several minutes in the middle of the trail.  The stars were out and they were beautiful.  I moved my arms, legs, and feet.  Everything seemed to be working.  I pressed my ribs, chest, and face.  Sore, but nothing broken apparently.  I sat up and took a gel and sipped some water.  Now what?  I stood up.  I felt a little dizzy, but I walked to the bottom of the hill and then resumed running slowly.  Several other runners passed me during this period.

For the next few miles, my knees and hips began to hurt in a way that can only be described as excruciating.  My heart rate was controlled, my breathing was steady, and my muscles felt strong, but my joints were simply not accustomed to being used in this way for four hours.  They were in a state of rebellion.  From now on I tried not to think about finishing.  I just tried to make it to the next goal.  I thought to myself, “You are only 3 miles or so away from marathon (26.2 miles).  That will be a good place to stop and drop out.”  I mustered enough determination to suffer for three more miles and kept going.

Purgatory – Miles 25 through 31

“Relentless forward progress.”  That, I have been told, is the ultrarunner’s mantra.  “Just keep moving,”  is what I would tell myself when the pain would get so bad I could barely think.  I would never let myself stop.  Even when I couldn’t run anymore, I would make myself walk.  Soon I realized that it was just as painful to walk at this point, so I might as well run.  But I kept moving.  The pain was nearly unbearable, but it didn’t get any worse.

Eventually I got to the marathon mark, which happened to be very close to an unmanned aid station.  I took my hydration pack off, refilled it, took a gel and an electrolyte tablet, shut off my headlamp, and I allowed myself to sit down and think.  I was actually pleased with myself for having made through a marathon on such a tough trail without nearly enough training.  I was mentally prepared to drop out at this point.  I tried to remember the trail map I looked at before the race began, and I realized it would be a four mile walk out back to the finish area.  “Four miles.” I thought.  “That would would be 30 miles all together if I kept running.  Wow!  That would be something.”  I stood up, turned on my headlamp, put on my pack, and decided not to drop out yet.  “I will try to  get to the 30 mile mark and then I will drop out.”

Once I got to the 30 mile mark, I had a similar decision point.  “I’m only 1.5 miles away from 50K (31.5 miles), and 50K is ‘officially’ an ultramarathon.  I’ve come this far, I may as well complete an ultramarathon.”  So off down the trail I trotted, suffering with every step.  By this point my joints were hurting so bad that I had to walk downhills.  I was fine on uphills.  In fact, I began to pass people on several of the climbs, but I simply could not endure the pounding of running downhill.  Slowly but surely I was making progress, and I was even beginning to pass people who had passed me earlier in the evening.

Paradiso – Miles 31 through 37.5

The last manned aid station is at mile 31.5… exactly 50K, and it is at the top of a long series of climbs.  I almost couldn’t believe I had actually made it.  I sat down and the saintly aid station volunteers filled my hydration pack for me, they brought me bananas, and poured cold water over my head.  It was like a whole new wave of energy, determination, and encouragement washed over me.  I realized that with only six miles left, there was no way I was dropping out having suffered so much and having come so far.  If I had to crawl all the way back, I was going to finish.  I stood up with new focus, profusely thanked the volunteers, and hit the trail at a run.  There is a pretty steep climb coming out of that aid station and I passed two people on the way up.  I walked the next downhill, and while I sucked down a gel I started to do some math in my head.  “OK, so I am going to finish this thing.  Where do I stand?”  As I converted my total time and miles covered into average pace and then did some extrapolating, I realized that I was going to be right on the bubble for finishing under 7 hours.  I had a new goal: Finish under seven.  That was my new mantra.

I took off at probably my fastest pace of the whole race.  I was easily running 7:30 per mile.  I don’t know where the strength came from, and I don’t know where the pain went, but I never walked another step.  Between mile 31.5 and the finish, there are two more ridges to climb and descend.  I hit them hard and I didn’t let up.  I began to pass people.  After 3.5 miles I arrived at the final aid station which is unmanned.  There were three people standing around drinking water and filling bottles, but I didn’t even stop.  I was only 2.5 miles from the finish and feeling good.  I took one more gel on the final climb, and then hauled it into the finish area on the final descent.

Coming into the finish area people can see your headlamp for roughly a half-mile out and they start cheering and clapping before you can ever see them.  Coming around the final corner, you hear music playing, you smell food cooking, and the end is in sight.  It almost made tears come to my eyes.  I was only happy for that moment.  I had no business running this race given the training I had done, and I couldn’t believe I was actually crossing the finish line.  Final time: 6 hours and 45 minutes.  It was 1:45 a.m.

Epilogue

I was immediately given cold Gatorade, a medal around my neck, and a chair to sit in.  One of the volunteers told me they thought I had finished top 10 for men (which later turned out not to be true…. I was the 12th man.  Whoop!).  All things considered, I am very pleased with how I did.  Despite the pain and falling and walking, my second lap was only 51 minutes slower than my first.  I stayed on top of hydration, nutrition, and electrolytes/salt the entire race.  That is something that usually trips up rookies, especially in hot weather.

During the race I consumed roughly:

200 ounces of water (a little over 1.5 gallons)

2000 calories

20-25 salt tablets

My total time puts me at roughly a 10:48 /mile pace.  However, if you take out nine aid stations, falling and laying on the trail, etc. my average moving pace was probably closer to 9:45 / mile.

My muscle strength was good, and my aerobic conditioning was more than up to the challenge.  Going foward, it is merely a mater of joint strength… which comes from simply putting in your time on trails.

The talk at the finish area was what an impressive field turned out to race this year.  There were people from all over Texas, the US, and even people from Spain, Portugal, and Switzerland.  To put it into perspective, my 6:45 time which put me 17th overall (12th male) this year would have put me in 7th, 6th, and 4th overall respectively for the past three years.

Looking ahead

I now have my first ultramarathon under my belt.  And though it was a sufferfest, I now have a good idea about what I am capable of, and where I need to improve.  There is another one of these Captain Carl’s Night Race Series 60Ks on July 21st at Mule Shoe Bend.  I will probably try to run it.  I will try to run faster than 6hrs and 45mins.

My big goal for the year is still the Palo Duro 50 miler in October.  My time from this weekend’s 60K would translate into exactly a 9 hour 50 miler.  Judging by the last few years’ results, that would put me somewhere between 2nd and 12th place.  However, I intend to be in better shape by then.  I don’t think 8 hours is out of the question.

I’m going to need a few days off.  I am very sore and have several black & bloody toenails.  I will hopefully resume training mid to late week.  I can hardly wait for the next one.  A special thanks to my beautiful wife for all her support and enthusiasm from South Dakota.  She really wanted to be there, but I told her, “Don’t worry about it.  I will almost certainly not be able to finish.”

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~ by jdballard on June 25, 2012.

6 Responses to “Perdenales Falls 60K Race Report”

  1. An epic debut, Jason! You gonna go for all four of Capt’n Karl’s? It would be fuuuunnnnn…. 🙂

    Great report, man. You really took us back onto the trail with you.

    I may do the 3rd (Aug 11 in Colorado Bend) and am planning on the 4th (Sept 1). That last one is at Reveille Ranch… And you KNOW I’ve got unfinished business there.

  2. I am determined to finish my mile today as an attempt to honor the genes in my body that are obviously inactivated postpartum. Way to go brother, wish we could’ve been there to cheer you on!

  3. […] “Mile 20 was the beginning of some of the worst physical suffering I have ever been through.  I thought about quitting for virtually every step for the next 10 miles.  Immediately after descending again into the river bed my left quad began cramping so bad I could barely walk.  I looked down at it with my headlamp and it was quivering and spasming like one of those alien movies where some nefarious life form has invaded your body and is about to erupt out of your skin.” by Jason @ souljourning […]

  4. Hey Jason hit me up sometime, I’ll be at Muleshoe Bend tomorrow to run and have never ran a run over 20 miles! Plus I just graduated HS. Looking forward to seeing you there.

  5. Josh,

    I’d love to meet you. I’ll be on the starting line of the 60K in a white Patagonia shirt. Come introduce yourself if you see me.

    Best,
    Jason

  6. […] was wrong even at mile 1, and by mile 20 I could tell it just wasn’t my night.  Funny, the last ultra I ran I finished even though I was completely unprepared, and this one I dropped out even though I was […]

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