In 2012 I did my first ever trail race, a half marathon at Lake Texoma’s Cross Timbers. It was a challenging, three-hour mudfest. It was the most enjoyable race of my life.
But being inexplicably driven by a desire to knock a few minutes off my road racing times, I forwent trail running for a few more years and focused on my goals in the marathon, half, 10 and 5k.
I still have more speed dreams to fulfill, but I hit a plateau recently and was feeling quite burned out. So in an effort to “ask nothing of my running” and enjoy the sport more, I once again signed up for Cross Timbers.
The half marathon was sold out, so I registered for the full marathon.
I told precious few people I was doing this — just my running buddy, Jen, my husband (who thinks I am insane) and the other runners I knew were attending.
The race turned out to be a positive experience, but the day began somewhat nightmarishly.
First of all, though the weather had been in the 30-40 degree range all week, we awoke to 66-degree race morning temps. Seriously? I thought. This. Just. Figures. (66 is too hot for a long hard run, but 40 is perfect).
I did enjoy the extreme good fortune of hitching a ride with my friends Nicole and her husband Eric and our buddy James. Nicole is one of the best trail/ultra runners in America. James also is an experienced marathoner, ultrarunner and trial runner who was a top finisher in previous year’s Cross Timbers marathon. Nicole was getting in some volunteer hours. James was running. Eric is a top-tier supporter and driver.
Nonetheless, near the end of the 90-minute drive to the start of the race, I became violently carsick. To make matters worse, when we stopped at the one restroom near the race site, an overflowing toilet welcomed us. Granted, this was more of a nightmare for the shop owner/operator, but the sight and smell exacerbated my illness.
When we pulled up to the race site, I immediately walked to the trees and puked my guts out. This continued as my friends picked up my racing number and bag.
Nicole, who basically is an A-list celebrity on the trail running scene, secured permission to run the first 10 miles of the course to the aid station where she would volunteer. We all gathered at the start and agreed that I was just carsick and that I’d get over it. Nicole would stick with me to the 10-mile station. Eric would drive the car there, and if I was too sick to go on at that point, I could just crawl into the backseat until everyone was done. That was not going to happen, I told myself.
I splashed some water in my face, stripped off my sweats and handed them to Eric. They helped me pin on my number. We stood, and I tried to converse with my fellow athletes, but I was barely holding my shit together as we waited for the race director to send us on our way. James and Nicole both said things to the effect of: “Once you get on the trail you will feel better.”
Most normal people would say: “You are throwing up and this might not be the time to run a 5-6 hour race.” But not them. I love my runner friends so much. And they were right, too.
Miraculously and thankfully, sometime between 5 a.m. when we left Dallas and the 7 a.m. race start, the temperature dropped by about 20 degrees. Hallelujah.
The lead pack, including James, took off. Several of the eventual leaders — including the female winner of the marathon — were content to run behind Nicole for the first three or four miles, though she was trotting along at my extremely cautious pace. Everyone wanted to congratulate her on her recent American record.
After the first hydration/nutrition/aid station, I let some of that group go ahead. I was careful because — other than that half marathon three years ago — I had not raced on a trail before, and, in the past year, I had not done any long runs of more than two and a half hours.
Based on my half marathon time out here in ’12, I figured I was looking at a six-hour race this day.
Also around this time, I went ahead of Nicole so that I could dictate the pace. I, of course, took a wrong turn and got myself, Nicole and two other guys lost. We were off track only for a very short while. Thankfully someone noticed the absence of the little white flags that lined the course and we were back on course soon, losing probably less than five minutes.
Unfortunately, this fork in the trail impacted our friend James, and the group he was with, far more significantly.
The first six miles of Cross Timbers is brutal. The course has something like 5,500 feet of elevation gain and loss and most of that is over the first and last six and a half miles (that’s why the half marathon course is so very slow and tough).
At the half-marathon turnaround, there is a beautiful aid/nutrition/cookie station manned by the friendliest volunteers you’ll ever meet. Here I drank some ginger ale and ate an orange slice. If I could keep that down, I figured, I would be OK. As we departed that stop, the course flattened out and grew more enjoyable. Nicole and I were able to relax, pick up the pace slightly, and chat. And by the time I hit mile 10, I felt much better.
At that point I dropped Nicole at the aid station and saw a friend from the Dallas Running Club, Steve, who said he got a late start. I considered running with him, but he, a talented and experienced trail/ultra runner, was moving pretty fast and, though I felt better, I thought I needed to keep it super comfortable until at least the mile-13 turnaround.
Also around this time, I saw James. As I mentioned before, he got lost and in his case it added about two extra miles, he says. I could tell he was pretty bummed about this. He also is about the most relaxed, low-key dude I know; he applies a surfer-like attitude toward running, so I wasn’t too worried about him.
The trail was just gorgeous, with several glimpses of Lake Texoma, even a short romp across a sandy shoreline beach. I was truly enjoying myself.
Again at the turnaround was a well-stocked goodie/drink/aid station where I procured some more ginger ale. I figured ginger ale would give me both hydration and some calories to keep me moving. I was afraid to consume anything else. At each of the remaining aid stations I would ask for ginger ale and the volunteers would scramble to get me a cup quickly. I was so impressed with the volunteers at this race. They were angels from trail-running heaven. Seriously.
(Side note: the space between aid stations on a trail marathon made me think about the excessive amount of hydration stations in a road marathon. A water table every 1-2 miles is too much and just creates congestion.)
By the time I saw Nicole again at the mile 10/16 aid station, I was feeling even better. Nicole at that point ran alongside me again for about another mile. As we passed a tiny lakeside gas station/convenience store, I said to her, “Do you think they have a restroom?” And she’s all: “I was wondering the same thing.” Then this kid hopping into his folks’ Suburban says to us, “It’s on the side of the building.” And I am like: “Oh there is a god!”
I am not exaggerating when I say that discovering that bathroom changed my whole life and universe. You see, one of the reasons I’ve avoided trail running is the bathroom situation. No matter how minor or major the, um, need, I cannot go outside, in the bushes; I just cannot. Maybe someday I will figure this out, but I just don’t think so.
So after the pit stop, I was a new woman, completely. I was keeping up a steady pace, power walking the hills and passing many people. Granted, most of the people I passed were tackling the 50 miler, which started half an hour before the regular marathon. I made sure to tell each of them how very impressed I was with what they were doing. I could not imagine nearly doubling what I did that day. That is a tough course for a 5 miler, much less a 50.
Anyway, I was alone most of the last 10 miles, but I talked to everyone I passed. I enjoyed the scenery immensely. Because of how bad I was at the beginning, I think, I was even more grateful for the way I felt at mile 20.
I hate people who say stuff like I am about to say, so know and please understand and believe this is an anomaly for me, but, I kept waiting to feel tired. I was like: I am sure to feel tired at some point, but instead I just felt more energized as the race went on.
In fact, when I finally saw Nicole again, when she told me I was at the finish line, I was like: What? It’s over? (I was so discombobulated at the start that I did not start my watch, so at mile 26, I thought I was at mile 24).
As I crossed the finish line, the race director, Teresa, greeted me and handed me a finishers award and says, “second overall female,” and then a guy sitting at a laptop at the finish line says, “she’s your masters winner,” and she takes the award and hands me a bigger, framed award that reads “first place masters.”
I dreaded hitting 40 as much as anyone possibly can, but it has resulted in some nice trophies and awards.
I am blown away by the superb organization of the race.
I am also happy as hell with my racing experience. Of course, once I finished I begin to think: Maybe if I hadn’t been so cautious I could have won first place. So I look at the results and see that first place female beat me by almost 30 minutes, so I am OK. I did not stand a chance, thank goodness. My time was 4:51.
Did I mention I love this race? I think I will do an ultra on the trail next. But I am keeping my plans to myself for a while.