Finding my Limits at Bandera 100 km
Bandera Endurance Trail Run (100 km)
Jan, 11, 2020
Where is the Threshold? How far is the limit? How deep and dark can I push myself without breaking? How vulnerable and raw can I get by putting myself out there to attempt something I’ve never done before and could easily be a big fail? My running goal since last summer has been to explore my limits and push myself to the max while searching. Bandera 100 km trail race was an event I selected to really focus on in order to test these limits with conviction. I am still processing the event and my mental sharpness about the race has been somewhat dulled due to emotional, physical, hormonal and adrenal crashes in the aftermath of such a hard effort, but I will attempt to reflect and process with my writing.
I have spent the greater part of the last decade being pretty Type A about pretty much everything in my life. I used to have google docs and spreadsheets for race planning and prep and I would nerd out on all of the logistics that come with racing & training. I used to plan out exactly how many miles I would run each day as part of my training block and have target weekly mileage goals to hit every week. My training was calculated and predictable and I had good results.
I haven’t trained for a specific running race with a goal since Feb of 2016. I have raced, sure, but have used the races as just part of training or just for fun since then, never really taking any one race too seriously. I took a year to race my bicycle which was a similar mentality in terms of following a regimented training plan for specific races and events. I left in the middle of a bike racing season to hike the Appalachian Trail (2,200 miles), and then The Colorado Trail (485 miles) and it was upon completing the Colorado Trail as I was in the throes of a divorce that I decided to re-engage with running with more focus and intentionality. I now knew how to really persevere through some serious suffering and wanted to put it to the test athletically.
However, this time, Jackie v2.0 left behind all the Type A planning and let a lot of the details fall to the wayside on purpose for this training season. My perspective of the world has now shifted and part of setting myself free involves not over-planning or getting caught up in the nitty gritty. My mantra for my training block was “just be hungry for miles.” I let a lot of my old habits and routines dissolve to just be more open and present each day to what the universe presented that day. I would just get miles whenever and wherever I could and that would probably be enough in terms of planning out my runs. It helps that my job is part time this year in terms of being flexible with my routine. I did have some weekly mileage targets and check in races. I also signed up for Rogue Running again to have a coach to help me with the mental/emotional component as well as have a group for accountability and get in some speed work once a week to stay sharp.
My recent trail experience (primarily hiking) has not only led me to be way more comfortable and confident moving on trail, but it has also really helped with my endurance and mental stamina. I knew I wanted to go the distance and see how far I could really go, so I selected Bandera 100 km as a checkpoint in that journey and would call it my A race for the fall/winter.
My training for the race involved a series of smaller trail races. I knew I lacked experience in trail racing and racing in general hasn’t historically been a strength of mine. Maybe it’s because I have been toning down my competitive spirit for years due to lack of confidence and probably just not being brave enough to put everything I have on the line to reach out far enough for something that truly feels scary. Last summer (2019) my whole concept of myself and the life I had been leading flipped over and I found new strength and courage I didn’t know was there. And parts of my competitive spirit even started to reawaken in a healthy way this last fall with an eagerness to push myself further and dig deeper.
My training races were all super helpful in terms of building my confidence and getting different exposure to various local trails and trying out different shoes. I raced the Capt’n Karl’s 60 km in Aug and got second place female on no running training at all. I hadn’t been running so this was just an experiment and purely to have fun. The race went well but my feet suffered. I then won the Wonderland Marathon, Salmagundi 50 km, and the Mosaic Marathon (three small local trail races). These races each had their own learning moments and ways of contributing to feeling a little more confident, but there was always an asterisk in the back of my mind that the field was so small anyone could jump out there and win those races. I then won the 2 person 12 hour relay with my teammate Tony at The Circus (in which I ran 60km) and ran the Decker Challenge half marathon (a hilly course!) the next day coming within two minutes of my half PR. I had a series of successes but the month before Bandera things took a little bit of a turn for me.
I got really sick during Christmas break. I had a consistent fever for 4 days straight and was in bed a majority of that time (with the exception of a half day of skiing on extra strength Tylenol which was a questionable decision at best). It took about another week to feel like my heart rate wasn’t soaring each time I went up and down the stairs or went for an easy run. My body was still very much recovering from being sick, and mentally this two week period sent me into a bit of a lull. I started to really lack motivation and question not only if I was ready to race Bandera, but if I even wanted to anymore. I struggled finding my “why” in late December and contemplated many days not even starting the race. I had to work hard to remember my successes from my training cycle, but I kept feeling nervous and scared about the mental struggle that would ensue during Bandera if my mindset wasn’t more positive.
Tapering for a race was a bit of a challenge. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself and there were many times that I likely got too heady and started to overthink things about my life in general as well as the race. I wish I had spent more time on logistics during this period because ultimately I think that is where I fell short during this event. I needed to figure out my footwear system and confirm my support team for the day of. I kept procrastinating. I felt uneasy at times asking people to be out there to support me. My coach, Chris McClung with Rogue Running, talked to me about using pacers for the last 50 km to practice using pacers if I wanted to do 100 miles later in my running career. I knew he was right, but it didn’t come easily to nail down support in the last few weeks. I was also nervous about having a pacer run with me. What would it feel like to be suffering next to someone who was feeling fresh? Would I respond by feeling accountable to that person or by feeling comforted and therefore not push myself hard enough? I finally settled on three pacers, Muz, Greg, and Iram. Muz would crew for me in the first lap and Jenny, Elaine and Kiana would crew for me in the second lap. At the last minute Greg got sick so he and Jenny couldn’t come out, so I ended up with two fantastic pacers and crew, but it was somewhat last minute in terms of figuring out exact details of how much they would run with me and where they would be at the different aid stations.
Footwear was even more last minute and was my biggest concern headed into the race. I went to REI a few weeks before the race to try on shoes and the salesperson was phenomenally helpful. He was so helpful that we determined none of the shoes I tried on would be the right shoe for me. He suggested I buy some Innov8 shoes (which REI doesn’t carry), so I ordered two pairs without ever having tried on a pair prior. I did a few short runs in each shoe a week or so before the race and they were fine, but I ultimately didn’t feel super confident in them. So two days before the race I went back to REI and bought a pair of the Hoka Torrents (the shoe I hiked the CT in and 700 miles of the AT in), as well as a brand new pair of shoes I had never worn before: a pair of Topos. I also decided to nix my orthotics hoping it would help give my toes more volume in the toebox. I thought I would do a shakeout run Friday morning before the race, but relaxation won my heart over Friday morning so I nixed the shakeout idea and knew eyes wide open that my last minute fickleness with footwear was less than ideal, and quite laughable.
I woke up before my 5:15 am alarm. Sleep had been shaky for me leading up to the race, and two nights prior I had a really bad nightmare that haunted me all day Friday. Friday night I took some CBD oil and actually got a good night’s rest which helped me feel ready to attack the day. I had a little bit of coffee with my almond milk (which I never do) and Muz and I were on our way to the park. I set out my labeled gear check bags at “the lodge” (the aid station at the start/finish/halfway point) and hung out there as it was the most sheltered spot from the wind. I helped other racers label their bags because I had some masking tape and a sharpie.
The weather could not have been more perfect. It was mid 30s to 40 at the start with clear skies. The night before there had been a horrendous thunderstorm and I was concerned that the trail would be a muddy mess because of it, but there was only a tiny amount of mud during the first lap, so not a big deal. It warmed up in the afternoon, but I would say conditions were ideal.
I went up to the start line and saw Nick (who was also racing) and his girlfriend Madelyn (crew/support who cheered me at multiple aid stations!). I waved bye to Muz and we were off. 400 ultra runners took to the trail. It was really interesting to have so many runners on the trail at once. The first few miles were packed and we were all in a line as the trail dwindled to single track quickly. The first climb after about 1 mile was major. It was steep and long and reduced everyone to a power hike instantly. This helped spread out the crowd.
I found a groove between when to run and when to power hike quite early on. It turns out a lot of ultra runners don't really know how to hike that well. For me it was second nature as I spent more than half of the last year doing just that. I took the downhills pretty aggressively and tried to not be right on someone’s tail for the downhill portions because I like to let go and run fast downhill with quick dance-like footwork. I ran through the first aid station without pause and realized I was a bit behind on the hydration plan Chris and I had come up with.
At mile 8 my left toe caught a rock in a flat-ish section and I fell really hard. I looked down at my right knee and saw that the gash was deep. This fall/cut got into my head as it brought me back to my traumatic trail running fall in Spain (2017) where I had to get stitches on my left knee and endure two rounds of antibiotics including an antibiotic IV because my entire leg got so infected from the gash. I got up from the fall and started walking. I could walk. It was painful but I had no choice. Eventually on a flat section I tried running and I could run. Pain was there, but it wasn’t preventing me from running. My gait was a little tweaked for a mile or so, but then I was able to run more normally That was when I realized there was just a lot of blood and pain but I could still run without compromising my form. I knew I had to keep running and get the fall out of my head as it was not a show stopper.
I rolled into the mile 9ish aid station where I found a medic and just asked her to make the cut stop bleeding. She didn’t need to attend to the wound (clean it and properly bandage it), but I was worried about all the blood dripping down my leg and wanted to cover the gash in order to stop or slow the bleeding as well as offer a layer of protection from dirt or if I fell on it again. The medic wrapped it in prewrap which was perfect.
I left the aid station and realized I still didn’t need to refill my water bottles so I made a concerted effort to finish my Tailwind (electrolyte drink) before the mile 16 aid station. The trail was rocky and I was hesitant to run at full capacity because I didn’t want to fall again. I could tell my body was a little stiff and tense from the fall still. But I kept moving. During this stretch my toes kept catching on rocks and I kept almost falling and catching myself so I decided I would change shoes at Nachos aid station (mile 16) where I would see Muz with all my extra shoes. I felt like the wide toe box in the Topos was causing the excess tripping. I rolled into Nachos and Muz filled up my water bottles with Tailwind while I struggled to get my shoes off and then my Hoka Torrents on. I should have had the laces loosened ahead of time because the shoe changing took longer than expected.
The Hoka Torrents felt fine, but the downhill sections were tough on my toes and the uphill sections started to create minor hot spots on the backs of my heels. I plugged into my music and just cruised along. It was getting warmer and I ended up stopping at every aid station to fill up on electrolytes as I was now drinking more fluid than I had planned.
Leaving the mile 27 aid stop (the last aid stop before “the lodge” - the halfway point), I started to feel sluggish. Energy and motivation began dipping and my focus began to slip. The heat of the day was setting in and I was entering a dark place. Everything felt hard and my quads were screaming. I knew my toes were in bad shape, but there was nothing to do. I planned that I would change shoes at the Lodge to try and mitigate further toe pain/damage.
I arrived at the Lodge and saw Muz. He had everything laid out on the grass like a nice triathlon transition area. Shoe laces loosened and all. I cruised by him and told him I needed to go to the bathroom so I would see him down by the porta-pottys. He moved all the stuff over to the porta potty area and I ate some peanut butter rice (!) and changed my shoes into one of the Innov8s. I began walking and realized INSTANTLY that they were a no go. I went back and tried the Saucony Peregrines (the shoe I had been doing most of my training in all fall). I could barely move in them they were so painful. So I decided to just stick with the Hokas that I had been wearing and hope for the best. They were the least bad of all the options.
This whole transition took about 13 minutes (when it probably should have been more like 2 minutes at most between the bathroom and nutrition refill). Muz joined me at this point and we ran the next 20 miles together. Initially, I was feeling strong after such a long aid stop respite, so I was running up hills that probably warranted hiking and Muz told me “hike this Jackie!” so I hiked. I had a pretty strong section from miles 31 to 36. I moved really well and confidently and passed a lot of people. Muz kept giving me words of encouragement at well timed moments while I listened to my music and just kept running.
By about mile 37-38 I started to wilt a little and my running became more of a shuffle, and my breathing audible with wimpers sprinkled here and there. I rolled into Equestrian aid station at about mile 42 and saw Elaine & Kiana offering to help get me anything I needed. I really couldn’t think about what I needed. I ate some pickles, Muz filled up my water bottles with more Tailwind, I hugged my crew and I was off. I was feeling emotionally pretty low and weary at this point so seeing familiar faces cheering me gave me strength for the next leg.
Around mile 43 (ish?) I heard Muz say something but I had my headphones in. What I thought he said was “Jackie, you’re trotting”, but later he told me what he actually said was “Jackie, there are horses trotting nearby.” He was simply pointing out that there were horses but I internalized trotting to mean barely running? I thought to myself, “welp! I’m not sure I can do anything differently. This feels like I all I can do right now! Trotting is faster than walking and everything hurts so much I can’t imagine actual running!” But instead of arguing with him, I chewed on this imagined feedback and decided to muster up the strength to not be “trotting.”
I turned my mentality around and started to run again. At about mile 48 (ish) the weather began to really cool down. I came into the mile 51 aid stop running and ready to keep pushing. I was hoping for some hot food but the potatoes had butter in them. Kiana gave me my arm warmers & gloves and I put them on. She also gave the jacket off her back as my light running jacket must've made it into a different bag. I put the jacket in my running pack, said bye to Muz and hello to Iram who would now be my pacer until the finish. I knew that when I saw him at this aid station ready to run with me that the finish we would be close. But somehow the end still felt so far away. I chose not to think about that and just stayed present and tried to attack my needs for that aid station.
Kiana helped get me Tums and nutrition while Elaine had the massage gun and went at my quads (which at this point were totally shot). I probably spent a little too much time at the aid station, so I began walking. I remembered I wanted some caffeine so Iram ran back to the aid station to grab me some flat Coke. I had never had Coke in a race prior to this one but have always heard of fellow ultra runners liking it for these big efforts. I was able to get a few sips down and then began running.
I knew from the first lap that these last 11 - 12 miles were very run-able and pretty flat with the exception of one giant climb and descent at the very end. I hit a third wind and was able press the gas just enough to hold onto good form and move well. I turned on my headlamp leaving the Chapas aid station and had fun with the feeling of it being a whole new day (due to it now being night). The sunset was crisp and magical and I loved seeing the dark outlines of the trees on the red light of the sky. Iram had a headlamp that he used to shine on the trail for me because my headlamp seemed pretty dim (which I later realized I did not have it turned up all the way) and he helped me to see ahead on the trail better by shining his light in front of me (which cost him a couple of falls).
I was feeling a bit more chatty so I took out one of my earbuds. I liked hearing his footsteps and breathing nearby. It was so dark that if I had both earbuds in it was a little disorienting and I felt alone, so being able to hear other footsteps seemed to really help. I joked around some and then eventually would stop and get quiet, then do it again. About 1.5 mi before arriving at Yaya (the last aid stop) Iram was able to call ahead to Elaine and tell her my needs so they could be ready for me. Body Glide & something warm & vegan. He also noticed that I was getting quite cold so my first order of business would be to put on the jacket.
I rolled into the last aid station and finally felt like I would finish. Not that I ever doubted my finish, but I could conceptualize finishing and feel that it was near. Elaine somehow managed to procure vegan ramen to which I drank the broth and had a bite or two of the noodles. Drinking the warm broth felt like absolute heaven. Leaving the last aid station I was a bit stiff from the start/stop and the colder temperatures so it took a minute to find my stride again.
Iram and I had a fun run at the end. I started feeling pretty loopy and asked him twice if it was raining. A fog had set in so I could see tiny water droplets in the light of my headlamp and it was kind of confusing me. I also kept asking if there were huge bonfires everywhere, but it turns out it was just the headlamps of cars off in the distance. I wanted there to be fires because I was cold and fires sounded cozy and nice. It was a nice fantasy in my head. It had been super dark because the moon had not yet risen until about the last 3-4 miles of the run.
The full moon rising on the horizon was one of the best distractions of all time. It filled me up so much and I felt in awe of the world as I realized what a tiny speck I was in the night landscape running an absurd amount and for what? The universe opened up and everything felt like it fell into proper perspective. This was just a race and I would finish, but the mental and emotional challenges on the journey and during the event are what allowed me to fully appreciate the powers of the full moon and nature's beauty as I realized all my heady stuff was just insignificant noise in the grand scheme of things.
We approached the end and there was a huge climb. I power hiked it the best I could, but at this point my power hiking was pretty labored. I knew the downhill portion would hurt, but then after that it would truly be over and pain was just a mere sensation I could mentally push through. I could hear people cheering off in the distance for a few miles. I kept wondering what it was and Iram told me it was people cheering runners at the finish line! What?! THE FINISH LINE???!!! There was still a part of me that thought the running would never end and that there was no way I was close enough to the finish that I could actually hear cheering! It gave me some energy and helped me realize that I would indeed finish this run! There was a FINISH LINE to get to!!!
The last 2 km my form fell a bit and I was pushing with everything I had. I was still out in front of my pacer and able to push myself and leave it all out there without needing to be pulled. Iram peeled off a little before the finish line and I pressed the gas to eek out anything left and flew as hard as I could to the finish line where Kiana stood holding a belt buckle for me. I got 10th woman, 50th overall, and 1st in my age group (30-39). I feel proud of these results at a competitive race with a stacked field in my first 100 km distance. It makes me feel like I am actually kind of good at trail running and these longer distance events.
After collapsing into everyone’s arms and wobbling around a little and finding a fire to warm up by I went to the heated car and changed into warm/dry clothes and wrapped myself in a sleeping bag. I started to get cold quickly. Once changed, I headed to the medic where they cleaned up my knee (I think by snipping off some of the dead skin around the cut and flushing it out with saline? (I’m not quite sure what they did because I couldn’t really pay attention). Then she addressed my feet. She told me I should use Rock Tape next time because it is more breathable instead of the Leukotape to prevent blisters. They determined that soapy water would do the trick to keep the wound on my knee clean and from getting infected and that I could probably skip getting stitches.
There is a part of me that is still processing that day/night in Bandera. The emotional crash mixed with the highs and rush of adrenaline prevented me from getting good sleep for a few days after. My body was sore and my toes in rough shape. Luckily, not as bad as they have been in the past because most of the toenails were already missing going into the race. But I still had some blisters that were tender and needed to watch two toes for possible infection. The worst part about my toes was the reaction I had to the Leukotape which caused an eczema outbreak all over my feet and toes where the adhesive had been. This is the 4th time that has happened so I have decided to throw away my Leukotape forever. The itchy feeling of eczema on my tender toes is pretty much the absolute worst and keeps me up at night!
What’s next? I’ll be recovering and gently adding on the mileage in the next month or so and I’ll begin a targeted training cycle to prepare for the Squamish 50/50 (50 miles Saturday and 50 km Sunday) with over double the elevation gain in Bandera. I will be hitting the hills and doing some of the local trail races this spring to prepare, but Squamish 50/50 in August is the next big event to push even further. I think I will postpone the 100 mile distance for now as the 50/50 feels like a big enough bite to chew on for the time being.
My race nutrition all fall had been pretty on point so I wasn’t too concerned with this component going into Bandera. I grabbed a few gels with caffeine in them that had been in my pantry for YEARS and now I am convinced they were expired/rotten. I also think I drank too much Tailwind and could have consumed more water instead of always filling up on electrolytes. Needless to say I had a lot of GI distress during this run and made the switch from electrolytes and gels to PB&J, pickles and water by about mile 40(ish). The constant diarrhea stops definitely accounted for some of my time and in the future I will plan this part more judiciously. The peanut butter rice at the 50 km hit the spot though!
I also spent way too much time messing with my shoes during the race. I switched shoes a total of 4 times which took quite a bit of time out of my run. I also wasn’t as efficient as I could have been in the aid stops on the second lap. I think these reasons are why my second lap time was so significantly slower than the first lap. My running pace wasn’t dramatically different, but the amount of time I spent at the aid stops was a lot longer the second time around.
I am so grateful to have had support from pacers and crew. I was nervous to even try having a pacer but I can’t really imagine what this race would have been like without them. It gave me something to look forward to and helped my mental game stay strong when it started to feel shaky. They also helped so much with a bunch of tiny logistical things that felt hard that late in the race.
I would say mission accomplished as far as finding my limits and pushing myself to get there. I had to manage a lot of different ailments (knee gash, footwear choices, nutrition and GI distress) as well as mental fatigue and suffering, but was able to stay on top of it all ultimately. I do feel proud of being able to listen to the pain signals my body was sending me and just notice them and not have a strong reaction to them. I think I have re-learned that everything is temporary. And when there is a pain signal it is important to listen, but I would tell myself to check back in 1 mile to see if anything had changed. Most of the time, things changed. So with this mentality I was able to avoid getting too much in my head about the various things that didn’t quite go right out there and keep the issues at bay. I think this is a lesson I’ve been learning all training cycle as well and will carry with me forward. Everything is temporary. I am learning to be more patient with my reactions to pain signals and just mindfully notice them and check back on them later rather than react upon initial input. Harder to do with emotions, but it is a work in progress!