Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Hells Hills 50K Report

Let me first describe Smithville, Texas. Or, rather, Smithville, TX, in early April, when you come in from a long winter in Denmark and a long week in Wisconsin. It's green and lush; the Colorado River flows lazily by. People speak with a slow drawl, as in "the food show is good at The Back Door". The town has seen better, more prosperous days and the train no longer stops at the famed Katy station (named after the Kansas-Texas, or Katy, line). It's a perfect place to unwind without kids, especially if one does it at the the Katy Bed and Breakfast.

We had arrived two days before the race, which gave us a chance to explore Austin. It also gave the Girl a chance to buy a headlamp, since she was starting her race at 5am. This at the urging of Olga, who also suggested I get one. For some reason, I couldn't imagine that it would be truly dark at 6am, when my race started. Maybe I was just too cheap to get one.

On the morning of the race, there was a thick fog and everything was pitch black. We had a hard time even finding the Rocky Hills Ranch, where the race is held. Did I mention it was dark? The organizers had laid out flares, mapping out the first section of the course, much like an airport runway. Someone had a fire going. It was a little eerie. Anyway, it was obvious that it would still be dark at 6am, so I was getting worried about this. Thankfully, Olga knew multiple people there, including the race director, Joe, who had an extra flashlight for me.

I have never run in the dark and I have never had any reason to run with a flashlight. The start went and I figured it would be safer to be out front. After a couple of minutes of running, I was leading a pack of five runners and didn't like it at all. It was obvious that passing was difficult - or impossible - on the narrow singletrack lined with cacti. The guy behind me was so close I could see his light under my feet. The trail twisted and turned sharply without warning, so it felt very difficult and stressful to run in front. Thankfully, I made a wrong turn and, thus, ended up in the back of the pack. Now, back there it was fun to follow the four other guys. Running back there, I would know well in advance, which way the trail turned and if there were rocks, roots or a steep downhill, someone would make it known with a warming or explative.

We were going fast, probably a lot faster than we should have. There were several falls, including a small tumble of my own, but nothing that stopped anyone. We lost the trail a few times, which meant a reshuffling of the order of the five of us and I wound up in front again for a while. At some point, one of the other guys simply pulled over, visibly and audibly short of breath. If it felt fast to me, I assume it felt unrealistically fast for him and he did the smart thing and slowed down.

The four of us continued, and we must all have though about what would happen next. For a full hour, we ran like characters in some past-paced video game through the technical mountain bike trails in complete darkness. The trail was typical of a good mountain bike trail: lots of tight turns that have become somewhat banked over time. The Rocky Hill Ranch isn't very big, so the trails twist and turn to make the most of the terrain.

We all ran through the first aid station without stopping. I wanted to stop but didn't want to lose the group. At the second aid station, I was the only one to stop. I drank two very quick cups of Gatorade, while someone filled up my handheld bottle, and stuffed a handful of gummi bears in my mouth. They were 50 yards or so away and I sprinted to get back to them. It took a good effort to reel them back in and I was breathing heavily when I got back onto the back of the pack. On the other hand, I was now the only one who had had anything to drink or eat. The others would sip from their bottles but hadn't even gone through half their bottles after an hour.

Then the predawn dusk came and the sun made it known where it would eventually rise. We were still together and it seemed like that's the way it would stay. The others were all built like runners. They ran smoothly with a fast turnover. There were no signs of weakness. I later learned their names were Travis, Mike and Rob. Like I said, we must all have wondered what would happen next.

Then, suddenly, the sun rose as we were running across this unreal meadow with a million bluebonnets and one longhorn cow staring at us. There was even a headwind and I had time to think: "If there was ever a reason to draft in this race, now would be it". And then the race disintegrated. Rob, who had been leading, almost slowed to a jog and then Travis sped up. I wasn't feeling great and thought I would draft behind Mike, at least across the meadow. But Mike made it known with his body language that he was running on empty, too.

We had obviously gone out too hard. Travis was gone, I was in second with Mike and Rob basically far gone. I figured second was good enough. But, lo and behold, suddenly I started catching up to Travis and eventually caught him. He wanted to let me pass but I stopped to pee, drink a bunch and have a GU. I caught up to him again and we chatted for a while. I was just explaining to him that the Girl was doing the 50 miles and I was saying that "you know, for the ladies, it's almost like the long runs are easier, because they don't have to run so fast" and suddenly there was the Girl! We said a quick hello but there was no time for romantic exchanges. I was hoping she didn't hear my comment. And she did look like she was running plenty fast at that moment (it turned out she had just gotten back to the trail after getting lost). Shortly thereafter, I passed Olga, who was leading for the women.

At the halfway aid station, Travis stopped to drop his shirt. Finally, my pale skin helped me out in life; I hadn't even considered going topless. I had time to drop my flashlight and grab a GU and I was off. Travis was a bit behind as we left. I felt good. Sure, the legs could tell they had run for almost two hours but I still had several gears. The banked turns were a lot more fun in the daylight. I turned on the music and enjoyed the morning.

With 5 mies to go, I was really starting to feel it. This corresponds pretty well to the ultra part of the ultramarathon. Interestingly, we have gone as far as a marathon in training this winter, but never farther. I was starting to cramp up and walked all the hills. I ate and drank as much as I could. Oh, and I looked behind me quite a bit to see if Travis was coming back.

Thankfully, I was passing 25Kers and 50milers and this kept up my spirits. One final GU with a few miles left gave me a good runner's high, and I was listening to my "fast" songs on the MP3 player. It felt good to run the last few miles but it also felt good to be done. Travis came in a few minutes later and we discussed the day's events. He admitted to feeling a little exuberant on the meadow, when he took off and agreed that running so fast in the dark had been fun and crazy. Mike came in fourth, having been passed by strategically wise Patrick, a South African living in Austin (quite a day for the foreigners). Rob had stomach issues and finished back in 16th, poor guy.

Then began the waiting. I had fun meeting people, all of whom agreed that Austin was a great place to live. It was hard to argue with them on a day like Saturday. Look how nice it is there, wood nymph or not.

One thing about Austin is that everyone is just so overwhelmingly nice. Certainly, Americans are generally nicer than us reserved Scandinavians but I think Texans are even nicer than Wisconsinites. We kept meeting people, who offered us free parking, entrance to pools, rebates on clothes etc. just for making it clear that we came from far away (we said Wisconsin and Denmark, depending on the conversation).

The Girl came through her second (of three) laps, looking quite tired. She was in third, since Juliet Morgan had blasted through the pack. Juliet stated after the pack that she was nervous about running in the dark and fell five times. The Girl fell eight times, and had the bruises to show for it. I think people at the aid station were impressed that this young, bloodied woman was running so fast. Then she screamed "where is my bottle?!?". I had completely forgotten that I was supposed to give hand a bottle of Gatorade and she was miffed by this fact. A few people likely thought: "who is that terribly important bloodied woman with her pale manservant?".

As you can tell, I was able to find some Gatorade and save the day.

The order of the women stayed the same: Juliet, Olga and the Girl. It got very hot at the end and I am sure I would have completely atomized, had I run the 50 miler. The Girl sunk into a chair, only to be showered with her cool lizard award and multiple cool gifts from Olga: socks, shirts, a skirt, more shirts and singlets. Olga is essentially the same larger-than-life character she is on her blog. She would sit in her camping chair, while cathing up with everyone and being served food and beer. It would have been nice to spend more time with her, but family stuff beckoned and she left for Austin.

I helped the tired Girl back to the car. We stopped at the Smithville grocery store to get some supplies and quickly realized how the Girl looked in the eyes of normal people. Someone said "it show looks like ya had a bad day". But it was quite the opposite: what a great race and what a great race!


olga said...

Man, you'd think I am a royalty, sitting and getting served:) Nah, just friends. Ain't Texans great? Actually, the whole UR community is, I should know, I've been around. I love them to death.
You did awesome. Loved how you deserved your bragging rights. How do you handle this pressure on yourself? Nice time.
I still want pictures, prett please, Mr. Paparazzi.

Danni said...

Nice work! Sounds like a great time was had by all despite the blood.

SteveQ said...

You won (dang furriners, winnin all are races) and didn't mention a finish time. That's just rubbing our noses in it.


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