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The Surprise Factor at the Big Bend Trail Race

I think every time you put yourself outside of your comfort zone there are two factors to be aware of. One is your limitation factor - the thing that ultimately prevents you from going faster/harder/longer. The second one is what I call "the surprise factor." The element of surprise is almost a guarantee during a challenge, race or high level event, and if everything goes smoothly and according to plan exactly, well then, perhaps THAT is the surprise factor! (Or maybe you weren't really putting yourself outside of your comfort zone or paying close enough attention to the surprises!)

I am racing three races in the month of January, which is a surprise on its own. I was registered for two half marathons from a while back and have been participating in the Big Bend 50 trail race out in West Texas every year on MLK weekend since 2013. The Decker Challenge was supposed to occur in December, but with a last minute venue change it moved to January and became a 10.2 mile distance. The Big Bend 50 is a race where I have trotted very untrained some years, while other years I have showed up ready to throw down harder efforts. 3M half marathon, 2022 was going to be one of my goal races (meaning I wanted to try for a PR), but after quitting my Rogue Running training group towards the end of 2021 to let my hip heal and not add speed workouts or any pressure to run, it has just become a race I am participating in for fun.

The Big Bend race has changed from the National Park to the State Park, various distances have been added, and our group has morphed and evolved over the years. I am just grateful I have been healthy enough to participate for 9 years (with the exception of the 2021 cancelation). This year I registered for the 30 km which was a bit outside my comfort zone as I had only run 11 miles twice since the Grand Canyon in early October. My hip has finally been feeling better for about a month but I trusted that trail running would ultimately be kind to my hip (and it was).

The race changed from a mass start to a rolling start due to COVID precautions, which was somewhat of a bummer because it is such a small trail race that part of the fun is passing people or having some competitive incentive with the other runners. The start window was between 7:30 am and 9:00 am for the 30 km distance. I started just before 8:00 am and had a fun time in the first 5 miles seeing some of my friends out there that I likely would not have seen running had there been a mass start. Getting to cheer them on was such a joy for me.

At mile 5.5-ish I rolled up to the first aid station where I asked a volunteer which direction to go for the 30 km. He told me to keep going straight. I questioned him as I was pretty certain we were supposed to turn left at that spot and he assured me that the turn was at the next aid station in 2 miles… Sure enough everyone else was going straight and no one was turning so I jammed to my tunes and pressed on.

That next stretch did not feel right. I had run this race many times before and something in my gut told me I was going the wrong way. I asked around to see what distance other runners were doing and we were a mix of many distances. Some 20 km, some 30 km, and some 50 km runners all headed in the same direction. Every now and again, some runners with my same yellow bib were running towards us, heading back to the initial aid station, but they all seemed uncertain about whether or not they were indeed going in the wrong direction. I felt sort of confident because the volunteer had told me 2 more miles…

I was then becoming more certain that I was headed in the wrong direction and was on the 50 km course and after a few mid-trail stops to discuss with other athletes, I started to ponder about just continuing on and running the 50 km course if I was on the wrong trail. I couldn’t fathom turning around! It felt unthinkable. I decided I had enough nutrition and turned to the people around me and said “Let’s just do the 50 km!” Some other woman said “I’ll do it if you do it, it’s only a couple extra miles, right?” I paused and corrected her estimate to “well, more like a couple extra hours” and she said “oh, never mind then!”

I nearly made it to the next aid station, almost fully convinced I was going to run the 50 km, when some of the fast men in the front pack of the 20 km and 30 km races were headed toward us and said that they made it to that next aid station and we had definitely missed our turn. Some runner told me I would probably clock about 22 miles if I turned back at that point. 22 sounded a bit more reasonable than 31, so without much thought I turned back with them. During our backtrack, we even got convinced one more time to make an additional wrong turn, but course corrected shortly after and eventually made it back to the initial aid station. Upon arrival, the volunteers were making a sign with a piece of paper and a pen, but at that point over half of the participants (anyone who started early in the start window) had clocked extra miles on their day by being told to go forward.

I was beginning to spiral into a bit of a negative headspace when another runner pointed out what a beautiful day it was. I snapped back to my purpose and my why. I wanted to run that race for me and no one else. That meant it didn’t matter if I placed or PRed, I just wanted to have a good long trail run where I pushed myself and felt proud about my effort (and my hip survived to tell the tale). I wanted to enjoy my time out there. There was no point in stewing in the negative energy of frustration that my hard running thus far was certainly going to reflect much slower results than reality and that others who started later then me would not have to run extra. The competition element was tossed out the window completely, even the time trial event with the rolling start, and I turned inward. This run was for me and not for the race results. I snapped back and just enjoyed the feeling of flying and dancing through the hills and cactus of the Chihuahuan desert.

I got the pleasure of seeing my sister Jamie and her fiancée John, and more friends this time on the lollipop loop (the more difficult and interesting terrain of the course). I kept running hard and realized that sometimes in trail running going off course is the surprise element. I had never gone off course by so many miles before (except for once in the White Mountains on the AT). I realized that this was the surprise factor for the day. It was a tad frustrating because I maybe could have performed very well in the field had there been a mass start and/or no wrong turns, but I decided that my bonus miles were exactly that; a bonus. Those of us that ran extra that day and kept pressing had a collective connection that made us feel that much stronger in the end.

The way in which we deal with the surprise factors in our day to day life is what matters the most. Yes, much more than the end result. Life throws you curveballs all the time, and sometimes a volunteer messes up and tells you the wrong thing and you doubt yourself and you end up running 22 miles instead of 19. But in the end, what really matters is how you spend each moment with your own thoughts and heart. I consciously had a moment where I dropped my frustration at the poor volunteer and realized I want to practice embracing the surprises in life with more grace moving forward. I know some disgruntled runners really had a hard time recalibrating and were still grumbly long after they crossed the finish line. The longer the thoughts meander in the mind, the more pronounced and myelinated those thought patterns become.

After an interesting packet pick up experience where the volunteers clearly needed more guidance and were frazzled, the disoriented volunteer at critical aid station #1 where there is a gigantic course turn, and last time’s experience volunteering at the finish line, I finished my race and immediately offered to help announce the finishers and awards. The volunteers were beyond grateful to have my support with the microphone. As a teacher, public speaking, cheerleading, and entertaining banter comes somewhat easily to me. I had so much fun announcing the finish line that some people pulled up their lawn chairs just to listen to me! I also got recruited to announce other races. Shelley advised that I add it to the section of my resume titled “Things I am Also Really Good At But Don’t Belong on a Resume.” It was so much more fulfilling and fun cheering people on as they crossed that finish line or received their award than any result of my own. I barely even remembered my own race and frustration with the bonus miles surprise. I loved getting to announce my friends and family’s awards as they all crushed the race out there (we always bring out a deep line up from our communities). I awkwardly announced my own age group win, but truly had the joy of watching so many others grin ear to ear due to their accomplishments that day.

Side notes for myself: The start was forecasted at 29 or 30 degrees and warmed up to 46-50 degrees, 6% humidity, 2-3 MPH winds for my 3 hour 29 min effort. I wore a loose long sleeve (would have been fine in a short sleeve - much debated the night before), light gloves (took off about halfway), visor, & spandex shorts. I carried a handheld water bottle which was more than sufficient. I ate three chews and drank some Tailwind at the aid stations. Had some overnight oats for pre-race brekkie. Big mistake to not wear my sunglasses as the white sandy trail and intense sun was very bright.

*Photo Cred: Tina Bizaca, Jonathan Timms, myself


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