crazy desert trail race report

The Wild West- Crazy Desert Trail Race

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. 

Mess with the bulls (and rattle snakes)- you fall in holes?

Guest Blogger Team TROT Ambassador: John Stasulli

My head was throbbing and my world was blurry as I came across the finish line at the Crazy Desert Trail Race 50k with my son Anthony, who had been out shooting photos of the race.  I don't remember receiving my medal, which I found later in my Victory bag, nor do I recall conversations that I had along the course with good friends or even the congratulatory greeting by Rob Goyen.  In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have even crossed the finish line that day. 

For the last year, I had been working with my coach, Karen Kantor, to increase my running performance and to become a more competitive (local) runner.  Training had been very focused to make sure my body (and mind) were conditioned and ready for what these races would throw at me.   My first attempt at testing the results of the training ended with Achilles Tendonitis back in November 2016 which took me out of any hard training for a few months.   The Crazy Desert Trail Race 50k, being put on my Trail Racing Over Texas, was to be my comeback race.   

 

Up to this point I would dab in various races just to go out, have fun, and use my lack of race experience to just cross the finish.  These events for me were all about fun, which is another reason I am typically at these events in a costume!   I made the decision to change things up and to see what I was capable of and the morning of March 11th, I was going to find out!

The sun had just come up as I walked to the starting line of the 50k race with 63 other runners.  Unlike previous ultra-marathons where I started somewhere in the back of the pack, this race was different.  I started at the line with some amazing athletes that I look up to!  We began the countdown and with Rob yelling across the crowd, MY race was underway.  All of us took off down the trail and onto the amazing single-track course (very similar to what I train on daily).   This single track was absolutely glorious!  Running in and out of the cacti fields, the occasional tight turns, the abundance of wildlife, and the occasional desert rollers.  I was in love with these trails from the start!  At the start of the race I did come across randomly dug holes in the middle of the trail though that would mess with my mind later in the race!

 

The entire first 18mi loop was perfectly on target.  I carried my Orange Mud VP2 with two bottles of Tailwind and my plan was to be self-sufficient throughout this entire race.   If I stopped at an aid station for anything, that would add time to my race which I didn’t want.  Plus, for those who know me, stopping at the aid station would have resulted in my talking; I am quite the social butterfly at races!  I stuck to my plan perfectly and felt GREAT! I blazed through each aid station yelling thank you to the volunteers without stopping once.  This was it!  The first loop I was surrounded by two great athletes the entire time.  Daniel Bucci was directly in front of me and right behind me was Vivian Carrasco (who went on to finish 2d overall!).   Daniel was always within eye-sight of me and every time I glanced back Vivian was only about 15-20’ behind me!  She ran such an amazing race and she is only 19 years old!  Oddly enough the most memorable part of this race is when Vivian and I ran through the post-apocalyptic park pavilions (one of my favorite sections of this race) when I had to clear the trail over about 20-30 Long Horns!   Without us slowing down I began clapping and yelling as they cleared our path.  We never actually spoke during that first loop, but it was such a fun amazing time!

Photo: Katie Graff

I completed my first loop (which ended up being a little over 18mi) in 2:40:46 in 5th place overall.  Everything up to this point had gone according to plan.  Hydration and nutrition were on point and legs felt amazingly good.   This is the only planned stop I had but it was only long enough to swap out my two bottles (which were already pre-mixed and ready to go) and grab half a protein cookie.  I was in and out of my make-shift aid station just as planned without skipping a beat.  While my transition was quick, Vivian’s was even better.  In the short time, I had grabbed my two bottles of Tailwind and protein cookie she had already ran back out the chute and onto the course!   Once my cookie was down I was back on pace heading onto the single track for the final 18mi of the race. 

Mile 20.  No matter how hard you train or the preparations you make, it is ultimately the trail that determines your fate and in this case, it was a hole.  I have been told that the holes on the course were the result of prairie dogs, rabbits, ground hogs, or armadillos.  Whichever it was, one of those holes gave me the opportunity to spend a lot more time on the glorious single-track than I had planned.   When going around a turn my foot dropped into a hole and I couldn’t catch myself.  I ended up bouncing my forehead off the trail.  From that point, my race had changed.  The more I ran, the more my head pounded and focusing on the trail at times seemed challenging.  The shadows that were cast on the trail were making me dizzy and everything out of my right eye was blurry.  I would run (what I thought was fast) until my head began throbbing and then dialed it back to a walk until it went away.  Much of the 2d loop was a blur to me (in more ways than one).  I continued along as much as my head would allow.  Eventually I began approaching the end of the final loop as I crept into Flintstone.  This section became considerably slower as I was not only battling my head and blurred vision, but this is when I finally encountered rattle snakes.  On a short stretch (about .5mi long) I ran into 4 (yes FOUR) rattlesnakes.   All but 3 of them were kind enough to go about their way and get off the trail.  The final snake, which was about ~7-8 years old based on the rattles, decided that he was going to go DOWN the trail with me.   I patiently waited in the trail for him to go on his way.  While doing so Victoriano, who was working the Flintstone Aid Station and a fellow TROT ambassador, came along to see if I was ok.   Once the rattlesnake cleared the trail, I was off again making my final few mile push to the finish line.


My son, who was at the race taking pictures, met me and ran me in the last 1/4mi. I crossed the finish line and new I made a mistake.  As I looked back on the loop, I couldn’t recall passing through some of the aid stations.  I was having trouble thinking, and my head was throbbing.   I made my way to the truck to sit down and call my wife Elizabeth.  One of my amazing friends Tammy and my son Anthony were worried about me and found a medic to come check me out.  After a short evaluation, it was determined that I had a mild-concussion and I spent the remainder of the day sitting under the TROT merchandise tent resting in the shade and answering random questions from the patrons.   As the day went on my vision began improving and the throbbing subsided.  Another friend, who is a Physician’s Assistant, also checked on me and gave me some advice and pointers as well.  I truly am blessed to have such an amazing family and friends in my life.

 

Photo by Trail Racing Over Texas (Anthony Stasulli)

Photo by Trail Racing Over Texas (Anthony Stasulli)

I don’t recall much from the second loop, nor do I recall being given medal and that is the biggest mistake I made that day.  After hitting my head like that, I really should not have continued.

I went into this race with huge goals for myself, all of which I believed were very attainable and realistic.  I knew this field had some amazing athletes so I wasn’t chasing a person or a place (although in the back of my head I was aiming for a top 5 finish), I was racing against the clock, and that magic number was to finish a 50k in 4:29. 

While the prairie dogs had a different outcome in store for me, I am proud of what transpired during this race.  While I didn’t finish in the time that I wanted, this was still by best finish at an Ultra Marathon!  I placed 9th overall (my first top-10 finish at an ultra) and 2d in my age-group.  Strava even informed me later that I set PRs on the 20k, Half Marathon, 30k, Marathon, and 50k distances!   I think what I am most excited about is my legs.  They never once felt tired and even today, there is no DOMS present! 


I learned what I was capable of at this race and this year, I WILL stand on those boxes this year! 

Race Gear:

Orange Mud VP2

Tailwind Nutrition

Goodr Glasses

Hoka One One Challenger ATR 2



John “The Grinch” Stasulli

Twitter: @JohnStasulli

Instagram: @JohnStasulli