The Wild West
Guest Blogger: Christina Pierce
The Crazy Desert Trail Race was crazy enough that it deserves a written race report. I am a relatively well versed Gulf Coast area trail runner, so the thought of traipsing off to West Texas to run a trail was a little unnerving. I would be completely out of my element, but I was ready for a challenge and ready to spread my wings and tackle 100k out in the desert.
I arrived Friday evening just in time to catch the race briefing. Rachel was there to give us the important details. She seemed to put everyone’s concerns at ease- especially those about bathrooms (just use the bushes!), snakes (don’t step on them), and the large cattle that roamed the park. Rachel said, “Oh they just want snacks. Just make yourself big and yell- SHOO COW”. I figured those details might come in handy later, so I tucked them away in my mind just in case. I picked up my packet, said hello to a few friends and scurried off to take care of my race prep before it got too late.
The next morning I awoke to a crisp, cool desert morning and gathered at the start line with about 50 other runners. It was quiet and dark except for the glow of the head lamps. Fist bumps, high fives, and words of encouragement were exchanged. The next thing I knew we were bounding off in the dark. The trail began with a tight bit of single track bordered on both sides by cactus that gave little room to pass. I started my race in a pack close to the leaders but comfortably behind them. We had a good pace and stayed close enough that our headlamps kept the ground beneath us in a glow of light. The trail snaked its way through the desert while the sun ever so slowly began to peak over the horizon. We were climbing and descending, and I couldn’t wait to see the beauty I could feel was surrounding us.
At the first aid station, I managed to get in and out relatively quickly. I dropped off the extra shirt I had on, refilled my bottle and got to work. The small pack of runners I had been in managed to disperse as we each took our time taking care of business at the aid station. The sun was starting to rise, and I was just in awe of the views. Every switchback or crest of a hill gave us another beautiful vista. Most of the time the running was on buttery smooth single track, but occasionally it was broken by rocky climbs and descents. I found my body being stressed in ways it hadn’t been before, but I was loving at how well my legs responded. I could power up one hill and bound down the other side like a kid at the park.
About midway through what was supposed to be a 20ish mile loop I began closely keeping tabs on the time on my trusty Timex. It was cool and I was running strong, but it just didn’t seem like I was moving fast enough. I had hoped that my first loop would take four hours, but that goal was slipping through my hands as I closed in on five hours. Thoughts of not making the cutoff were bouncing around in my mind. Should I just drop now? You burned the boats, right? The start/finish was finally in sight, and I knew I had to just get in and out. No stopping. No excuses. I flew in with a great crowd cheering all of the runners on. Unexpectedly, Kelsey stopped me and explained that the course was longer than expected. I was confused at first, but then relief washed over me as I realized my five hour first loop was great. I was more determined than ever to get back out there and get this next loop done.
I left the main aid station with a new skip in my step. The sense of defeat that I had come in with was now gone and replaced with determination. My goal for this loop was to keep a solid steady pace. The desert heat would prove to be the theme for the second loop. It was H.O.T. hot and there was no hiding from it. There was no shade, barely a breeze, and the dry desert air wicked away any moisture you tried to use to keep cool. The distance between aid stations proved to be a challenge as well. At each aid station I would drink a full bottle and refill again before heading out, but it still was not enough. An ice soaked TROT buff would be my best friend for the second loop.
I managed to catch up to Mark Henn on the biggest climb on the course. I took the time to chat with him a bit and share in our suffering. After a few minutes, Mark shared with me that he was pretty sure I was the 3rd place female- a spot I don’t think I have ever been in in an ultra. Julie Koepke was in the lead, a lady in red (Janis Jenkins) was within eyeshot, and then there was me. I told Mark that I guess I better get going and decided to get to work to chase the podium for the first time. It was the hottest part of the day, but I did my best to keep moving. At one point I managed to move into second place, but near heat exhaustion left me to relegate myself to third as Ali Sloan passed me before the end of the loop.
As I came into the main aid station Rob met me and let me know I was in fact in 3rd place and twenty minutes behind second. Rob and Amy Zmolek at the aid station helped me get what I needed (which included a second water bottle!) and sent me back out to the cheers of the awesome spectators. Thirteen miles was all that stood between me and a podium finish. The boats were burned in the hot desert sun, and I was ready to get the job done. The sun was starting to set, and I was looking forward to some cooler temperatures.
The final loop flew by in a flash. As the temps dropped my speed increased. I flew across the beautiful single track and bounded up the climbs knowing that I didn’t have to leave any gas in the tank. As the dark started to settle across the desert I knew that I had to keep my eyes peeled for snakes and rocks. I was busy patting myself on the back that I had made it through the day without falling on the technical trails. After all, if you fell out here you would probably end up wearing a purple helmet the rest of the year like Gordon Ainsleigh. No sooner had I finished my self-congratulations when my foot caught a rock and down I went. I laid on the ground cursing and trying to get up before the rattlesnakes descended upon me. I couldn’t die like that. I rolled around for a bit as my abs locked down into a wave of muscle cramps from my efforts to try to sit up. After a bit more cursing I was on my feet again and moving forward.
The final hurdle in the last few miles was a cold front that blew in like a windy freight train. I only had about four miles to go, but the wind was blowing the desert sand into my eyes and pushing me back from my goal. I pulled out an extra flashlight, tucked my head down, and pressed forward. My eyes were trained on the ground even harder. Another fall like the last one could end my race. With the winds pushing me every direction I suddenly looked up to see a large cow barreling down the path straight for me. I panicked. What did Rachel say to tell the cows? I couldn’t remember. I stepped to the side to avoid getting mowed down. The cows were undeterred. I began to wave my arms and the words finally came, “SHOO COW! SHOO COW! SHOO COW!”. One by one cow after cow veered off the trail just to my left as they headed for cover from the coming storm. I got back on the trail and pushed on a little harder with an extra jolt of adrenaline from my big cow encounter.
Before I knew it I could hear the cheers and cowbells ringing at the finish line. My eyes searched for the lights of the main aid station. Once it was in sight I turned on the after burners and flew to the finish. Rob was there waiting with his customary big smile, big hug, and high fives. It was a moment I had waited all day for as he hung that belt buckle around my neck. I think he was surprised as I was that I managed to snag that 3rd place female finish. I caught my breath for a few moments, exchanged some trail tales, and soaked it all in before the wind threatened to blow down everything in its path and sent us all scurrying for cover.
My entire race was magical in a really difficult blister-covered feet, sunburned, heat exhausted kind of way that only ultra-runners seem to understand. The terrain and views were absolutely breathtaking. The volunteers were second to none and took such great care of all of the runners- even setting up an impromptu aid station so runners could have much needed water. San Angelo State Park staff was friendly and welcoming to all of the runners. The wildlife was absolutely WILD. And finally, Rob and Rachel gave us runners yet another chance to chase rainbows, make memories, and let our friendships grow. TROT supports its runners whether they are elite or back of the packers. TROT is family and it’s why I will always come back again and again.