Race Report: Ultra Caballo Blanco
Travel Day 5: Urique, Mexico, Race Day
I woke up at 4:15 am per the symphony of various alarm jingles in the tent grove. Being in a tent can be deceiving. You think you have your own little spot with privacy, but in fact you can hear each and every sound and movement from all the tents around you. Being in a little tent grove with my sisters in the backyard of our home in Mexico reminded me of the Appalachian Trail. I had to actually wear earplugs to drown out the noises of people’s sleeping pads creaking and croaking each time the moved a single limb. (yes - it is louder than you think it is!). We all had such a strange night’s sleep that night because we all were awoken in the middle of the night to a very strange sounding cat stand off (lots of growling and odd upset cat noises).
We got up and made breakfast. I had a hot Soylent for my pre-race fuel and at 5:00 am we went out to get our race bracelets. Everyone participating in the two race distances needed to get a bracelet between the hours of 5:00 and 6:00. The line was long but it moved surprisingly fast. Luckily the passing of the bracelets happened 10 feet outside our front door (also where the start line is) so we were all able to come back in and chill before going back out to the start corral. We went back out at about 5:55 am for the 6:00 am start. The start time ended up 15 minutes delayed because runners kept being asked to move back and line up BEHIND the start line (there were too many people in front of the start line). There of course isn’t chip timing here, so plenty of people wanted to start close to the front.
In order to prevent cutting the trail (majorly), we needed to collect bracelets along the way at certain aid stops of the race. This is why the start bracelet was handed out right at the beginning as well. For the 42 km we needed to collect two bracelets at the furthest points, each a different color.
After the people with the microphone spent way too much time saying “good morning, good luck and thank you” in about 50 different ways, we were able to start at 6:15. Between 6:00 and 6:15 the crowd was getting quite impatient (those precious pre sunrise cooler minutes would have served us all!) and it was starting to verge a riot (slight exaggeration). But there was a LOT of shouting and some chanting to go ahead and start already. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone had started running and the whole group followed.
The start was a bit chaotic because EVERYONE goes out way too fast (it is also the flattest and coolest mile). The sun was just rising slightly so you could see, but it wasn’t over the mountains yet. I saw my mom and Paige (Robbie’s mom) at the first aid stop at the bridge volunteering and yelled hi, but they were working hard getting water to the runners. They had to get up and at it before the rest of us to be at their volunteer post before the race’s start. I would see them again at 30 km. I had asked my mom to have a Gatorade on standby for me in case I needed more electrolytes at the 30 km mark - which I was already looking forward to.
I filled my 1.5 L water reservoir with Skratch to start and I’m SO glad I loaded up on electrolytes. My face was FILLED with salt at the end - more than any other race I’ve ever done. I knew there was an aid stop at El Naranjo (the top of our gargantuan climb from mi 5 to mi 13)! I planned to refill my reservoir at that aid stop and add a my one leftover Skratch pack as well as the leftover coconut water powder we had from our AT trek. So glad I grabbed that at the last minute at home. I wasn’t sure if I would make it 30k on my 1.5 L before the Gatorade.
The first 4 miles were mostly runnable and on dirt road. At about mile 4 I commenced a lot of power hiking up the climbs so I grabbed my poles from my pack and never put them back. It felt so natural to use my poles again and I was so grateful to have so much experience using them while hiking the AT.
We crossed the river on a suspension bridge early on in the race and some of the Tarahumara were so scared and hanging on to the chain link fence on both sides. Another older man was scooting on his butt towards the end of the bridge. The more people on the bridge, the shakier it became. I got behind a younger Tarahumara woman who wasn’t afraid to pass the people who were moving really slowly on the bridge and I stuck with her for a bit to get around the traffic jams. She moved effortlessly and swiftly so I hung with her and rode her tail for a bit.
All of a sudden there was a place where the dirt road did a switchback and I saw a line of Tarahumara deviate from the course and take the “shortcut.” It was so much steeper and they had to walk in single file. I'm confident that it actually ended up being more of a long cut due to the steep and technical nature of the shortcut. I had heard about Tarahumara “cutting the course” before coming down here. They are known for choosing the most direct path (as that is how they are accustomed to getting from point A to point B). I didn’t expect for it to be so obvious or for so many people to choose to cut the course. It almost seemed expected. It definitely wouldn’t have been ok for foreigners to cut the course though - not that I was tempted at all because the path they chose seemed WAY harder!
The course changed this year from years past (they added a lot more single track up and down El Naranjo (miles 5-16). This prevented a of course cutting because it was tailored much more to the Tarahumara people (single track and more direct versus dirt road switchbacks - aka not REAL trail running). During this section we pretty much all ran the same route.
It still took me aback the first few times I saw lines of runners going off course - on purpose. For what seemed like a steeper deviation and maybe even out of the way? But I’m sure they knew the area well enough to think it was a shortcut. All they were focused on was getting to the checkpoints to collect bracelets. Depending on how many bracelets one collected determined how many food vouchers they received at the end. It is also incredibly common to DNF the race here. The main motive for a majority of the people is to win food, so they sign up for the 80km and go as far as they can in the day - taking many breaks or deciding enough is enough and turn in their bracelets. Last year 1,500 runners toed the start line and only 400 finished. This year 1,850 started!
At about mile 5 the road turned to single track trail up El Naranjo (over 4.5k feet of climbing. It was SOOO MUCH CLIMBING! There was a nice false summit and we even spent a while descending before climbing back up again. I knew we weren’t done climbing though because the aid stop at the false summit didn’t have the coveted bracelet. I was very actively using my poles and BEYOND grateful to have them with me. I was mostly hiking this un-runnable terrain after the 5 mile mark. The trails were very narrow and steep in many sections, but gorgeous!
The hiking section suited my strengths very well! After living on the AT for 5+ months, zooming up and down the trail with a MUCH lighter pack made everything feel that much more manageable. The trail was technical in some parts, quite steep and hot, but I was used to all of that and I just clicked in with my poles and found my rhythm. I really was happy the whole time. It felt like my comfort zone and I felt confident in my hike/run abilities in the mountainous part.
My low back ached pretty early on, but it was dull so I wasn’t too concerned. I knew the more I used my poles the more my glutes activated and took some of the climbing load from my quads and low back (I have a tendency to not be able to activate my glutes well so my quads are overworked and VERY strong and my low back takes the load instead of my glutes, causing some issues). Poles HELP with my form so I was so glad I decided to use them.
I needed to remember to eat. I think I kept my nutrition quite under control all things considered. I ate oranges at a lot of the aid stops. Took a banana at one point and ate that although it didn’t quench me like the oranges did. I knew it was filled with potassium and would help with potential cramping, which I was slightly concerned about during this insane heat. The oranges though. OMG! They were BY FAR the best oranges I’ve ever had. SO JUICY and fresh and ripe. They are in season in the area - orange trees everywhere, and they hit the spot like no other food item possibly could. I ate my caffeine chews on the mountain in two spurts (3 and 3), and ate half a Thunderbird bar. I also stayed pretty on top of my hydration which also had calories.
I stuck with a few different packs on El Naranjo (two Mexican nationals from Juarez - Teresa and Sergio), some white foreigners (unsure of names) and Julia from Sweden for a bit. Sergio ran on my tail for quite a while and would sometimes tell me to pass people and go catch someone ahead. It was helpful for me to have him nudge me and push me and I think my consistency helped pull him. He was setting out to do the 80 km and I last saw him a few minutes behind me after my turnaround in Guapalayna, 40 km aid stop/town where the 80 km splits from the marathon distance (which was actually 48 km). It was nice to have small groups and work together when passing people who were walking more slowly in front. We could all pass and make moves together. We would also walk the steeper sections together and decide when it was time to run again, pushing one another. It felt like teamwork, not competition. I loved that feeling so much! All the runners kept giving “ánimo!” to one another (cheer)!
13.1 mi took me over 3 hours! It was by far my longest half marathon ever (besides the ones on trail hiking with a 25 lb pack). I was ELATED to see Max (from NadaMoo!) at the aid stop at the top of El Naranjo and just overjoyed that I could finally get my bracelet! Max took some pics and then came over to tell me good job and hug and then said that Robbie wasn’t far in front of me. I hoped I could catch him and we could run with each other. I took my time at the aid stop to refill my 1.5 L reservoir with water and the rest of the electrolyte powder I had with me. It was tough to handle my reservoir and fill it with powder, but it had to happen so I just tried to be patient.
After leaving the aid stop we descended for a few miles and hit the Jeep road again. I had lost the people I was running with due to the chaos at the big aid station. I then ran into a Teresa after taking a quick pee break and then passed her. I then caught up to a tall skinny foreigner guy who had said to me earlier that he was ALSO vegan (he saw the back of my hat which read “plant powered”). I ran with him for a bit and eventually passed him and some others as we neared the 30 km aid stop. I would later get to know that runner as Elliott (who spit of the moment decided to join Robbie’s transcon!)
I descended the rest of the mountain mostly with Tarahumara, and we pushed each other. The descent was long and I could feel my quads for sure but I used my poles and it gave my quads some relief. I felt super comfortable using my poles and my feet seemed to know what to do. I think my trail shoes are slightly too big, which means I don’t have tender toes or blisters, but it also means my toe caught a root or rock every now and again and I was grateful to have my poles for these close call would-have-been falls.
Once I hit the dirt road at about mile 16 I started running for longer stretches. I met a guy from Chihuahua, David, and he wanted me to stay with him running so it pushed me just the right amount to keep running. My body was so used to the slow pace of the mountain and doing more anaerobic work (power hiking and low heart rate work). But now on the Jeep road I held my poles and needed to switch over to do more aerobic work. It was a tough transition, but had to happen or I would be out there all day and run out of food and water.
I could tell the caffeine from the chews I had in the mountain were helping me. I was on top of my nutrition and needed to really pay more attention to it and focus on it so I didn’t fall behind. I knew I still had probably 2/3 of my hydration resovoir full coming into the 30km stop where I would see my mom and Paige, and I decided I would tell her no Gatorade. I knew the electrolytes I was carrying would get me to Guapalayna and I could top off with water and take gels instead at that point.
I rolled into the 30 km aid stop running strong. I stopped and had them dump water on my face to wash all the salt off and cool me off. I saw Robbie there and we left together. I was running and he was waking and he told me he was feeling full (he had been battling some constipation issues - which can be so uncomfortable in athletic situations). I needed to keep moving because the sun was roasting me ever since we got back on the road. There was just NO shade at all. I ran all the way back to Urique and started to make a small goal of maybe running the rest of the way (without walking) - but no pressure. I had almost dropped my poles with Paige and mom at 30 km, but I remembered there were some climbs ahead (we drove the part from Urique to Guapalayna two days prior for our shake out hike). I was really using them to power hike on the climbs on the Jeep road, so I kept them. They started to get really hot in my hands as the black carbon absorbed a lot of heat, and I just made sure to switch hands often so they didn’t burn my palms.
Running back through Urique was really fun actually! I thought it would be demoralizing to come into town and then have to go back out again (something Robbie had to do TWICE for the 80 km!), but I just soaked up all the cheer everyone gave me and tried to avoid the speed humps. The excitement of the town gave me energy to keep running, so I just kept running.
Some woman came out and gave me a plastic bag with ice wrapped in wet/cold paper towels. MAGIC! I used it all over my body and then tucked it into my sports bra to cool down my core (a trick I learned on the At whenever we came by coolers with trail magic - I always went for the ice on hot days to prevent overheating). The temperature was well over 90 deg and the intensity of the sun made it feel SO MUCH HOTTER! These were such tough running conditions and verged dangerous.
I needed to stay with it and stay focused. Right before entering town at about mile 19 (and 5 hours) I took my first gel. It was a mango flavored Gatorade gel and it was PERFECT! It tasted like pure mango sent from the heavens, not thick or like a normal gu might. It didn’t upset my stomach at all (which was teetering on the good side), but all the electrolytes I was drinking certainly gave me my fill of sweet. That mango gel was ON POINT! I decided I would take my caffeinated gel at the 6 hour mark. Wow. I realized I was going to be out there quite a bit longer than I had expected!
Leaving town it got pretty quiet fast, but it was still relatively flat. There were a few climbs and at this point I was power hiking every uphill (unless it was a very minor grade). The sun was BLASTING down on us during the absolute hottest part of the day. Theoretically, it was only supposed to be 6 km out and 6 km back, but it was definitely longer. The heat was a major factor. I was downing electrolytes nonstop and it kept me in the game.
About 1.5 mi outside of town there was a REALLY animated aid station with younger people enthusiastically cheering and handing out oranges and water. I had them dump water on my face to wash away the salt again and cool me off. They were also in a tiny bit of shade under a tree and it felt so nice to be out of the blasting sun for a quick minute.
I then pressed on. It was a death march heading out to Guapalayna. It was SO hot and the Jeep road didn’t offer much variety or anything to focus on.
After running/hiking on trail in the mountain all morning it was hard to switch gears back into running mode. As I started a long and sustained climb I saw Shelley flying down towards me! She yelled to me that she was in 3rd place! WHAT?! I was NOT surprised at all - she’d been having an absolutely outstanding running year and was/is so strong! I cheered for her and fumbled around to try and take a picture of her but my fingers and phone were too wet and it was too bright to see my screen and I couldn’t pull up my camera in time. It lifted my spirits so much to see her doing so well!
I continued on and started counting the women behind her. It was an out and back (ended up being about 8 km out and 8 km back). I wondered if I was close to the turnaround and maybe close to the top 10? I counted up to 10 and then stopped counting because I lost interest (and I think that was also close to when I turned around).
The aid stop at Guapalayna (~40 km) was chaotic because I needed to get a wristband as well as fill up my camelback with water since I still had about an hour left to turn back and head to Urique - another 8 km in this blistering heat. I didn’t want to risk running out of water out there - it was just too hot and dangerous, so I’d rather just carry extra and be heavier than rush through the aid stop and risk dehydration.
I needed to manage myself and keep things under control and not bonk. I had come this far without bonking and had focused on keeping my body fueled and hydrated with electrolytes and I needed to stay focused. I walked out of town with another woman (Mexican national), and took a caffeine gel. I started to run and crossed the bridge leaving town when I saw Robbie coming up the bridge heading into town. I cheered for him but I could tell he wasn’t in a great place mentally. I also knew it was probably the hottest part of the day and he had a HUGE climb ahead of him after he left Guapalayna.
The woman and I ran together for a little bit and she said we could help pull each other. I liked the idea of working together but she ran up some hills that I chose to walk up and I just had to take it a little slower because the heat was zapping me. I had been out there for over 6 hours at this point, and I needed to keep it together. I was a little afraid of the heat after getting heat exhaustion on trail last summer in New Jersey. It was horrific and I couldn’t risk going there again. She dropped me and it was totally fine.
I then got to a part in the road where the cliff wall created a small sliver of shade on the side of the road. A tall American dude stopped and was standing there. He said he was waiting for me and when I came by he started running with me because he was lonely and his buddy was too far behind him. He had never run a marathon before and was needing some commeraderie to finish the race. I told him no promises but that we could run together and help each other.
When we got to the enthusiastic tree shaded pit stop before town he drank some water and I had them dump water on my face again. We left the aid stop together and ran into town together.
As we approached town you can see the finish line ahead, BUT there is a 90 degree right turn to then have you run back along another road that runs parallel to the main road with the finish line. We did some extra running on the river side of town and through some sandy road before turning back onto the main road to the finish line. That last little loop on the back side of the course was a bit unexpected for all and was a little longer than I would have liked. I dropped my buddy Luca at this point. He said he ended up waking that last 1 km because he thought he was finished when he saw the finish line. He finished not too long after me though - so that’s good!
I came through the finish somewhat strong but as soon as I crossed the finish line I melted into Jamie stone and Shelley’s arms. Max captured my ugly crying and wobbly emotional self in all its glory, but I was so overtaken with emotion and maybe some hormone imbalance from such a big effort I just didn’t quite know what to do. I wanted to keep walking but I needed to be in the shade, so I really couldn’t do much other than walk around in small circles in the shade (which were sort of crowded as everyone needed to take cover).
I gave the woman I had left Guapalayna with a HUGE hug and we congratulated each other for a long time. I love the spirit of trail races in this sense. I truly feel like other runners are there to support one another and the bond brings us close even though we were once total strangers and might not have ever met in real life if it hadn’t been for the race.
I went pretty quickly to take a cool shower and then a hot shower. Not long after I started shivering while my body began to regulate its temperature again. I drank some Soylent and decided to walk around some more. Not too long after I decided to rest while Shelley, Jamie Stone, Max and Paige all went next door to Mama Tita’s to grab lunch.
While I was resting my dad, Jamie and John came in to the house! They took a short break/reprieve before heading back out to start the 16 km out and back to Guapalayna! Wow! They had been out there in the heat this long and they still had a few more hours of blistering heat ahead of them. Incredible! I have them ánimo and made sure they had enough fluids and nutrition and we sent them on their way.
We then regrouped in the street after some down time and we waited for the trio to finish their 48 km race! They finished all in great shape and high spirits! Wow! Shelley had indeed placed 3rd in the female competitors, Jamie Stone got 11th place and I got 12th place for women.
Then we all waited for Robbie to come through. Unfortunately, once he passed through town again he STILL had an additional 10 miles out and back to finish the race! We looked at the cutoff time and it seemed tight. Then it started to seem like he wouldn’t make it according to the cut off times. Then it became clear that the cutoff times were tossed out the window because they were based on last year’s easier course, and many people would still be out there much later this year.
It was dark and we started asking athletes as they came through if they had seen a tall guy with a big beard. Eventually other runners said he was getting close. At this time it became clear Robbie would benefit from having support out there for these last slow and dark miles of the course. Shelley and Jamie Stone were out of the question since they had left it ALL out there with their races and pushed for FAST times. Shelley also had her award ceremony which would occur during those last 10 miles for Robbie, so she definitely had to stay. Dad, Jamie, & John had been out there for so many hours in the grueling heat none of them were jumping up to volunteer. So I decided I would go part of the way with Robbie, wait at an aid stop, then come back the last couple miles with him. I just didn’t think I had 10 more miles left in me, but maybe 3-4?
My family didn’t exactly feel it was safe for me to hang around in the dark at an aid stop by myself for what could be hours, so we recruited another runner who we had gotten to know a little bit over the past few days, Christian, to join me.
Robbie came through and it was much cooler now that it was late into the evening. We asked if he wanted company and for us to join him for a few kms and he was keen, so off we went.
I felt good. My legs really weren’t tired from such a slow and mountainous effort earlier in the day. My legs were MUCH more sore after the Austin Half Marathon a few weeks earlier that took me a while to recover from - but not today. Endurance is a different beast than speed, and one I am much more comfortable with.
Robbie wanted to only walk. Ooof. Walking for 10 miles would put us out there for a VERY long time. I encouraged him to try running a little on the flats and downhills and eventually he took to the suggestion. It wasn’t that he couldn’t, as he was actually in MUCH better shape than he was when I had seen him the two times on the course earlier in the day. He was trying to conserve his legs for the start of his transcontinental run - which would commence two weeks from this race. He was worried he would be too tired if he had to take too much time to recover from this race, which is why he played his cards very conservatively that day.
Once he took to running on the easy sections he found he was moving well and it was worth it to not be out there too much longer.
Christian kept saying he felt fine, and so did I, so we actually ended up staying with Robbie the ENTIRE 10 miles. This put me at a new distance record (although I had a few hours of rest in between bouts) of 38 miles for the whole day! I felt fine and it was my first time “pacing” someone in an ultra. I have cheered and crewed Jamie in ultra races, but always from the sidelines. It was a new experience for me to be out there with Robbie and Christian, in the dark and at the tail end of a very challenging 50 mile race for Robbie.
I also felt grateful to have this experience with him prior to the transcon as it prepped me in many ways on how to best be a support to Robbie on his monumental goal of running across the US! After having just proposed to my sister Shelley the night before, I felt like this was a nice christening of sibling-hood. The commencement of a new chapter in our relationship as future brother and sister-in-law. Being new to the whole brother thing was exciting and getting a chance to support Robbie and push myself into uncharted territory all in one bout made for a pretty epic race day.