So the week after TIR, I decided I wanted to run the Tejas Trails race Hell’s Hills for the first time. I’d never done this one before, and heard that it was a much less technical course compared to something like Bandera or Nueces, so I was hoping to get in a good training run for some speed (in preparation for the Brazo’s Bend 50k at the end of the month in Houston) and have a blast in the process. Me and a friend talked to Joe (the race director) the night before the race, and he mentioned that the first and last miles of the race were particularly gnarly, with some nice speedy flatland in between. Contrary to what the name suggests, the course is not super hilly – the ranch is named for the couple who founded it (their last name is Hill) and for the fact that it’s usually one of the first hot races of the year in Texas before everyone has had the opportunity to acclimate.
Knowing that the race was not actually as devastatingly hilly as the name implied in addition to the forecasted weather looking BEAUTIFUL, I decided maybe this would be a good race to try and beat my 2:49 25K PR I’d set at Big Bend. The day before the race I returned home after class, packed my stuff and headed out to camp the night before. The weather could not have been more amazing for camping as well as racing – it was a cool 56-60 degrees during the night and well into the morning. I planned out my breakfast, set all my stuff up, and set my alarm for 0600. Turns out the 50 milers were starting at 0500, and the 50k at 0600, so I really didn’t need any alarm clocks between all the hooting and hollering that was occurring at the start line at that time.
Before the race I decided that it would be a good idea to not worry too much about my Garmin. I wanted to run this race mostly on feel, to try and get some good speed but at the same time be careful to not lose all my momentum before the last quarter of the race (a frequent issue on my part). After hearing Joe talk about how gnarly the first and last parts of the race are, I had settled for a goal of sub 3 hours, and if I felt super awesome I would try to PR my 25k. I had still been filling a bit stiff from TIR (mostly my hamstrings have been stiff as hell all week) so I knew that just going by feel would be my best bet. It’s sometimes a bit disheartening to go from road to trail racing for me – when at TIR I was running 8:30 m/m-9:30 m/m, it’s pretty rare I run anything even slightly resembling that sort of speed on the trail. So feeling like I’m running fast and looking down at my Garmin telling me I’m running slower than a 1o m/m normally gets me frustrated during races. Hence the ditching.
There were a TON of people signed up for the 25k. This was super obvious to me in the beginning of the race when tons of people were pushing (no, really) past me and others to try and run up all the hills to the front. Those first few minutes of the race were probably some of the crappiest (in terms of fellow runners) in any trail race I’d ever done thus far. It’s probably old hat to blame the road runners at this point (sorry, guys!) but when I see behavior like that in trail races I can’t help but always think that. Double sorry to all you courteous road runners – I know you guys exist! It’s just kind of annoying to have a bunch of people push past you to get by even when you’re trying to stay out of the way of the “faster” people, but then several people want to go passing you on both sides so you’re technically in the way of everyone. And then they pass you to run up all the hills only for you to pass them again a mile later because they gassed themselves. Silly.
Lucky for me most of that nonsense dispersed within the first fifteen minutes or so. I got a really bad cramp in my left calf during this first mile or so of the race, which is exactly what happened at Big Bend (only in both calves). I’m beginning to think that starting off the race with steady incline is what makes this happen – though Big Bend was far and away the flattest race I’ve ever ran, the first mile was a steady incline the entire way. Since it was only one calf this time, I resolved to try and run it out as opposed to walking, and after about 20 minutes it had disappeared completely. So, warming up more/differently next time before running a race that starts off with incline? Not sure what to do about that.
Though the race was mostly flat, it still kept me engaged and having a lot of fun with the way the course winded around quite a bit, lots of switchbacks and pretty fun forest scenery. There were some “water crossings” (more like puddle crossings) in a spot or two, but most of the mud on the rest of the course had dried up. Eventually we came out of the woods and out into the back fields before the second aid station, and oh my god:
SO MANY WILDFLOWERS. Pictures can never ever do it justice. The wildflowers were straight nuts here.
I am pretty proud of my steady pace throughout most of these miles – often times I find that the less I think about the pace the less I start to kind of get frustrated/grumpy/hate running (not really, but yes really). I ran into some people and ran with them and chit chatted for a while, played back and forth with one woman (pet peeve – being passed by someone I’ve already passed…uuugggh) and generally cruised and enjoyed my time.
Joe was not messing around about the gnarliness of the last mile, though – the “rolling hills” on the course turned into death drops onto unsteady wooden plank bridges, dropping down and then immediately heading straight back up. I am admittedly extremely reckless when it comes to running steep and technical downhill, but even these gave me a little bit of pause. This was due in part to the appearance of instability in the bridges (planks with spaces in between them – I kept imagining myself flying down and tripping on the gaps in between planks) and just general distrust of the bridges in general. I’ve been doing alright on the knee front lately, but running steep downhill kind of aggravates it so I didn’t want to throw myself straight down with abandon…but you know, sometimes you just gotta make up time. 😛
Eventually we came out of the woods again, and the frequency of the “motivational signs” posted on the trees was dramatically increasing so I figured we must be close to the finish at this point. I kicked the pace up just a little, feeling a bit sore but overall still pretty good. Eventually we were suddenly at the finish, and I kicked it up again a bit, still pretty comfortable but breathing heavier. I crossed the finish line and hadn’t even thought about my time during that whole last part of the race. After talking to a friend for a few minutes, I realized I hadn’t checked my time and finally looked at my Garmin – 3:00:41. Seriously?! I waited for the official results, in hopes that maybe I had started my Garmin a bit early and would be miraculously granted my sub 3 hour goal, but alas…it wasn’t meant to be.
Perhaps most frustrating about the whole thing was that I know I could have easily ended up with a sub 3 hour time if I had been checking my Garmin and knew where I was in relation to my goal, but oh well. You live and you learn. Maybe next time I’ll settle for only looking at my Garmin every half hour or something like that. Or I’ll just go back to obsessively looking at it and then spontaneously die of frustration during some race one day. Whichever.
Race equipment included Tailwind as always, my trusty Team RWB running shirt that makes me run faster, Pearl Izumi E:M N1 shoes, and my Ultimate Direction Jenny Vesta. Full disclosure: I literally only wore this vest to hold my phone so I could log the Charity Miles for my local Team RWB chapter (I left my SPIbelt at home…) I hate running with my phone, but I also hate losing, so I’ve been running with my phone so our chapter can log those miles! 😉 Luckily this vest is crazy light, so it didn’t even bother me in the slightest.
Coming up: Fast 50k training, how yoga is hard, and my return to CrossFit. Yikes.
This year was my second year running the Texas Independence Relay, a 200 mile relay that runs from Gonzales, TX to the San Jacinto Monument in Houston, TX. For all you non-Texans (sorry), here is an abbreviated history of the events behind the race. If you haven’t done a relay of this sort of epicness before, the basic gist is that everyone piles into vans and takes turns running legs of various distances until they all die of exhaustion or finally arrive at their destination.
Being that this was my second year, I pretty much knew what I was in for. I also did the 223 mile Capital to Coast relay (Austin, TX to Corpus Christi) last year as well, so while I wouldn’t call myself a veteran, I would say I definitely know what’s up when it comes to absurdly long Texan relays at this point. Honestly though – it doesn’t really matter at all how mentally prepared you are going into it, because when you get exhausted all mental preparation goes out the window. People get cranky. Hangry. Whiny. Sleepy. Legs refuse to move. You have to wear a tiara. (Side note: the wife of one runner brought a tiara along, and anyone who was being excessively bitchy had to wear it. If I had a dollar for every time I heard “Do you want to wear the tiara?!” I could pay back my race entry.)
Doing a 200 mile relay is definitely what is classified as “type 2 fun”. While you do have fun during, eventually it gets dark and you get sleep deprived and everyone starts to point the blame at me for making them join the team and telling them it was fun or something. (Whatever!) During the race you cheer on your runners, tag other vans, drink beers and have fun in whatever way you possibly can. Through all the crap parts – the sleep deprivation, the heat, the getting lost – there’s a lot of meeting and hanging with rad people, seeing the Texas countryside, and some more drinking beers. Some running, too. Where we were very unfortunate in our fate of being the van to run during the heat of the day – and it got HOT as hell – we were very fortunate that Texas blessed us with some amazing wildflowers and some beautiful country.
My last two legs were slogs if I have ever had them – the third was right after our van’s break in running and our short nap, which I feel like just intensified my exhaustion by that point. It was about four or five in the morning, and the entire leg was set up in such a way that the van could provide no support for the entire leg. As we got into Houston, all the big obvious signs pointing us in the right direction were replaced by small flags stuck in the ground that were barely visible in the pitch-dark of the early morning. I got lost a few times. My legs felt like they were made of stone, and protested every single step I took. It’s those moments in the dark where you start to get a little bit loopy – things start to make less sense, you start to feel like you’re probably going to be running forever in the dark because though you’re relatively sure you’re not lost, you can’t help but think maybe you are. We found out later in the day (well into the afternoon) that a lot of the flags as we came into Houston had been stolen by passerby and as a result many people got lost. One of our runners whose leg was in the thick of downtown Houston called us several times at one point because he was completely lost and without direction.
These things suck. They suck a lot. It’s so cheesy to say these kinds of things bring you together as a team – the suffering, the confusion, the exhaustion – but it’s completely true. When you cross that finish line and everyone runs through to the San Jacinto Monument, you realize how completely INSANE what you’ve just done was and no matter how much you might have thought it sucked at one point, it’s completely awesome afterwards. And if you’re a team that has to return 200 miles west to get back home afterwards, once you start making that drive home you start to realize “Oh shit, we ran all of this…” Mind blown. Also the assholes who blamed me for their suffering (“THIS WAS YOUR IDEAAA UGH”) say they had a lot of fun and want to do it next year. BOOM!
It’s made a million times more awesome to be able to do it with Team RWB. The opportunity to go and represent this amazing organization and spread the word about our mission is a huge blessing!
For the record, I ran in my Brooks Pure Connect 2s ($40 for last year’s model…how could I pass that up?). I don’t own very many road shoes (aka I only own one very thin-soled pair of Merrell’s), so I was admittedly a bit neurotic about finding the “right” shoe for the job. I had to take the insoles out for them to feel right, but in the end they worked out perfectly for me! I fueled the entire weekend with Tailwind Nutrition and was dealing it out like crack to my vanmates before their runs as well. All in all, with the many things that could possibly go wrong on a 200 mile relay, I feel like everything more or less worked out to our benefit. 😀