Well, it happens to most people, and now it has happened to me. Yesterday I had my first DNF at the Cross Timbers Trail Run 50 miler. Here's the story.
I rode there (TX/OK border) with my friend from North Texas Trail Runners, Deb. I woke up at 2:45 AM, got to Deb's house by about 3:30 and we hit the road. We got to the race start about 5:15 to prepare for the 6:30 start. The weather was really unpredictable; they were saying we were supposed to have rain that night and possibly severe storms during the day. It turns out we had a little mist and light rain at night, and a little rain about 20 minutes into the race, and then the sun came out.
So we all started with flashlights but only needed them for about 15 minutes. After the rain parts of the course got pretty muddy and slick, so of course at 35 minutes into the race my feet slid out from under me on a turn and I landed on the right side. My leg was covered with mud, my shorts had mud in them, and I had some small cuts and nicks. Nothing major, and I wasn't hurt, so I just hopped up and moved on. My hand was soon covered with blood from a very small cut on my thumb, but eventually it stopped bleeding and dried up.
The course is very challenging, probably the most challenging course I've ever raced on. It has lots of hills (10,000 feet of elevation gain over 50 miles) and the hills are generally steep. The race has a tight cutoff: 12 hours. I've done four fifty milers; my first one was about 12:45, the others were under 12:00. So a 12 hour cutoff on difficult terrain would be a major challenge. And this is where I made my most significant mistake.
I planned to do a 13:30 pace for the first half of the race, then 14:30 for the second half. This would give me a little cushion for finishing under 12 hours. Unfortunately, I made a stupid beginners mistake and went out way too fast. My pace for the first ten miles was 12:22, over a minute faster than plan. I tried to hang with some of the runners from NTTR (Lynn, Rochelle, Bill), and I pretty much did for the first 10 miles. But I had no business being up there with them. I'm not sure I could have finished this race at all, but burning up all my energy on the first 10 miles sealed my fate.
After the turn around and aid station I headed back the way I came. There were some confusing intersections on this part of the trail, and I was walking alone, so unfortunately I made a wrong turn somewhere. I saw people on the trail through the woods, but I couldn't seem to get to the trail. Also, I didn't want to "cheat" the distance so I didn't just cut through the woods and get back on the trail; I tried to track back the way I came. Instead I made a big loop and got back on the trail about 0.25 - 0.50 miles before the place where I made the wrong turn. So I wasted time being lost and then repeated a short section of trail! As a result, my second 10 mile loop was a 14:29 pace.
By now the sun had come up and dried up most of the trail. The mud on my leg had dried, and the mud in my shoes had turned to dirt and grit that was irritating my feet. So I changed socks when I got back to the race start at mile 20, then headed out for the 2.5 mile out-and-back that everyone talks about. This is a short section, but for many people it takes twice as long as it normally would. It has many, many hills, all very long and steep. That is the most difficult thing about this course - hills that are both long and steep. If you've ever trained on the North Shore Trail at Lake Grapevine, it is like all of the most difficult sections of that trail crammed into 2.5 miles and lengthened. I struggled through this section with dead legs, not thinking I could climb another hill.
I saw a few of the NTTR people ahead of me, most looking good on their way back to the start area and another loop. By this point the wind was incredibly strong! Strong gusts were rocking the trees and raising up sand and dust. It was tough on a few narrow sections of trail with a sheer cliff dropping off to one side and the wind battering you around.
At this point I was debating what to do with the rest of the day. I was certain I would miss the intermediate cutoff (10.5 hours before starting the final 2.5 mile out and back) so I knew I would DNF. I was tired and slightly dehydrated and didn't know how I could keep going. I finally got to the turnaround and the aid station and headed back to the start area. I saw a few people behind me and tried to offer them whatever encouragement I could. The whole time I was thinking that I would drop at the start area, giving me a total of 25 miles for the day.
A little before I arrived at the aid station I ran into Deb. She was almost five miles behind me. Her main goal was a good 12 hour training run (she's training for Umstead 100) so she was planning to do as many miles as she could in the twelve hours of the race. She encouraged me to just stop worrying about the DNF and think of it as a good training run. So I decided to stop at the start area and have some food, rest for a bit, then head back out and do the final twenty miles, getting 45 miles for the day. I had a coke, a cheeseburger and some chips, then filled my bottle and went out for the 10 mile out-and-back. Again the wind was blowing strongly and everything in the start pavilion was blowing around.
The next 10 miles were uneventful, except for the sandstorm. Literally. The sky was a weird brown/green color, the air was gritty, and you could no longer see across the lake. It was really weird. My wife said they had the same thing in Dallas about 1.5 hours away. It lasted about 30 minutes, then cleared up and the sun came back out.
I was slow; sometimes I racewalked, sometimes I slow walked, once in a while I stopped on steep hills. But I kept going, and I was in relatively good spirits. I stopped to eat and drink at the aid stations. I was pretty sure that I was slightly dehydrated because I wasn't sweating much (I tend to sweat A LOT, even in cold weather) and I always felt thirsty. My wristband was dry and when I would wipe the little sweat from my face it would hurt. I had grit in my eyes and mouth and my face was covered with salt, so that was all uncomfortable.
I made the turnaround and headed back. About seven miles from the finish I ran into Deb. She was planning to turn around there and not do the full ten, so I waited for her at the aid station and we headed back together. This made the final seven miles much more enjoyable as we talked about other races and experiences. It really made the time pass quickly.
Finally we were on the last section and headed to the finish. We were actually passed by two runners who had gotten their second wind and were trying to make the cutoffs (I don't think either of them had time, but I think the RD let them go on anyway). Deb and I finally left the trail for the quarter mile on road back to the start. We turned the last corner, made it to the finish and stopped. I sat down, and Antje from NTTR brought me a hot, delicious hamburger. Oh, it felt good to sit.
Deb and I almost immediately got in the car and headed home. After the quick drive home Deb dropped me off at Campisi's where I met my family for a big dinner (fettuccini alfredo and cheese toast never tasted so good). The other diners at Campisi's must have been confused - I was still wearing my race clothes (minus shoes - I had switched to flip flops) and number, and still had mud on my leg and arm and little bloody wounds. The defeated warrior....
All in all, I'm glad I did this race. It was great hill training, and it taught me something about race planning and sticking with the plan. I don't know if I'll do this race again, but I probably will. I don't know if this will ever be a race I can finish as a walker unless the cutoffs are increased. So maybe next year I'll do the marathon, or I'll do the 50 again but just consider it as a training day. I might see if I can get a group together to go to this trail once every month or two for training - in my limited experience, this is the best hill training available in Texas (I've heard Bandera is the other).
If you're looking for a challenging trail Half Marathon, Full Marathon or 50 miler, this is a great choice. Some of the trail markings could be improved, but other than that it is a typically well-run race with good aid and a beautiful and challenging course.
Loop 1: 2:03:34 (10 miles)
Loop 2: 2:24:47 (10 miles)
Loop 3: 41:26 (2.5 miles)
Loop 4: 53:51 (2.5 miles)
Loop 5: 2:42:36 (10 miles) (includes break and meal at start)
Loop 6: 2:48:30 (10 miles) (includes backtrack and aid station with Deb)
Total Distance: 45 miles
Total Time: 11:44:47