It’s become a yearly tradition to do an early season 100k in search of a Western States Golden Ticket. I placed 3rd at Gorge Waterfalls in 2017 and, again, 3rd at Sean O’Brien in 2018. That ticket seemed tantalizingly close yet just out of reach. Golden Ticket chasing is a hard and stressful business because there’s no room for error. Train your heart out, make every right decision on race day, or watch from the sidelines come June. I decided on the Bandera 100k this year for a change of scenery, I’d never run in Texas, and to give it my best shot early in the year so I could plan the rest of the year according to the results.
My training block went as well as I could’ve hoped. I could look back with confidence at those 5 or so workouts that I knocked out of the park, as well as the steady and patient accumulation of aerobic miles. Unlike previous blocks doing as much vertical gain as possible, I decided I would run everything and avoid power hiking as well. I added speed endurance (200s, 300s, 400s hard) workouts to challenge my body in ways I hadn’t for some time. I adapted my training plan when it was wise to do so and opted to recover well from hard efforts rather than push even more because I was feeling good.
An email arrived from the Bandera race director a few hours before the New Year announcing that the venue for the race would be changed. I was initially shocked but realized it didn’t matter much to me anyway. I’d procrastinated drafting a race plan, and I’d never seen the course anyway. If anything, this would level the playing field as many other racers had been on the course before. As an added bonus, we were staying at the family vacation house of one of my student athletes from back in Portland and the new venue actually shortened our drive! Adaptability, I learned through Bandera, is one of the key elements to successfully racing an ultra. Golden Ticket races always gather stout fields and this was no exception. Of course, I’d scanned the registered runners list and seen a number of names that struck fear in my heart; Ryan Kaiser, Chris Mocko, Jeff Colt, Chris DeNucci, Matt Daniels, Juan Moran to name a few, and knew others would come to compete as well.
The start was cold and conservatively slow. It appeared that no one was looking to race right out of the gate, so I settled into third position behind Mocko and Jeff. I hadn’t decided on a clear race plan but knew from previous Golden Ticket races that I couldn’t allow too large of a gap to form. Just two miles in, the two in front peeled off, and I found myself, reluctantly at first, at the front of the pack. I decided to go with it and began to appreciate that I had a clear view of the technical rocky terrain, able to choose my footing as I pleased. I wasn’t pushing but simply moving through the trail with efficiency and maintaining a comfortable aerobic effort. When I reached the first aid station at mile 5 I shed some layers and heard Rachel sternly voicing, “Calm…calm…calm…” I knew she was concerned about this early move, but I was running with confidence in my fitness and that the effort I as putting forth was manageable. It was an added benefit to run the trail first in that I saw some great wildlife, including 2 deer, 1 coyote, and one little piglet.
Generally, I enjoy the technicality of rocky trails. They keep me focused, entertained and in a flow state not unlike a fun creek walk on a pleasant summer day in Oregon. They’re an interesting change from the smooth single track I’m used to. Oh, but the trails in the Texas Hill Country are relentlessly rough, and blisters formed early. I enjoyed the trails for 20 or so miles before I was fed up with the rocks. I knew I’d need to keep my mettle because sloppy footwork leads to inefficient stride patterns leads to fatigue and slow running.
The first 30 mile lap of the course meandered throughout Camp Eagle on what I heard held around 16 miles worth of trail in total and included 100k, 50k and 25k runners. I saw this first lap as my opportunity to ‘preview’ the course, believing it would be the second lap when the racing would truly begin. The trails were congested to say the least, but I can’t complain considering the magic Tejas Trails conjured up to pull off a race less than a week after needing to change venues. I must’ve seen most other racers 3 or 4 more times throughout the day, and the congestion was a small price to pay for the camaraderie experienced. The course was marked exceptionally well, so running up front didn't cause any additional stress to route find.
Rachel and I had planned for her to meet me every 10 miles for a brief water bottle exchange and restock of energy gels. We kept the game plan simple with Tailwind and Spring Energy gels to begin with and adapted as the day wore on. I was really pleased with how the Naked Running Band belt performed holding an extra water bottle. That first lap I stayed in the lead but had a couple runners join me for stretches before dropping back. I never built up more than a 2 minute lead and tempered any excitement that I was running away with the thing. Far from it. Just as I was finishing up that first lap, Matt Daniels ran up behind me looking very strong and took the lead from there. I figured he was gone. On the out and back we saw others 3 to 5 minutes behind who would be coming after us.
Over the next few miles I experienced the beginnings of a bonk, my legs growing heavy and clarity of thought diminished. That’s when all the doubts began to creep in. Leading takes a mental toll; I’m not used to it. I began to question the early race tactics, my ability to keep a solid pace, maybe even my ability to finish. I had to remember that I’ve experienced and come out of bonks before, to be patient and take care of myself when I reached the next aid station. A new thought came to me as well, one that would become my mantra for the remaining 25 miles of the race: If not now, when? I was in the best position I’d ever been in to earn a Golden Ticket, and that’s what I’d come for. Those, I believe, were the hardest miles of the race. When I reached the aid station at mile 35 I took my time and switched up nutrition to coke, pickle juice, and some fabulously tasty oranges. There was a short climb out of the aid station and by the top I was feeling great and moving well.
Just two miles later I found Matt sitting on the side of the trail. I asked how he was doing and he reported he’d hit his head hard on a branch. What a tough break for someone running so well in his first attempt at the 100k distance. Without getting too deeply into hypotheticals, without this mishap it’s likely that Matt would’ve run to Bandera victory.
Reaching mile 40, I found yet another Nike dude coming up hard behind me. Chris Mocko looked like he was having a solid day, and, according to Rachel’s split records, he’d closed down a 6 minute gap. Jeff Colt told us after the race that’d he had seen us at the top of the climb as well and was chasing hard. Mocko and I spoke briefly that we were 2.5-3 hours away from Golden Tickets. He said his plan was to stay conservative until the final ten miles and then threw at me what looked like quite the un-conservative surge and was gone.
I became indifferent to the technical terrain over those final 20 miles. The rockiness had somehow become automatic and my footing was sure. This late in the race, I went through some body scans and found I really wasn’t feeling that bad. I continued to move with efficiency through the course and put to practice the way I had training specifically for this race: to run everything. Mocko’s gap grew to two minutes and stayed there, and the gap back to third steadily grew in small increments. I reached the aid station at mile 50 and flipped the switch in my mind. It was time to race and seal this major goal of mine. I knew from reading Alex Hutchinson’s Endure that the mind will loosen the reigns in the final miles of a race because it suspects the end is near and it no longer needs to guard itself from danger. I felt that.
5 miles remained at the final aid station. Rachel told me the gap was 30 seconds (in truth it was a minute, that sly gal) and that it was time to dig deep, to go for it. Still, I was hesitant to chase and continued to run as I had been for the next mile. The reward of a Golden Ticket was tantalizing, and for so long I’d made up my mind that it was enough. Then I thought about the text I received from my friend Alex that morning saying, “9 will fight, 1 is a warrior,” and I made the decision that I’d be a warrior and go for it. If not now, when? Others on the trail were telling me he was just ahead and I fed off that excitement. It took two miles to pull even with Chris, but I did it, and then I didn’t really know what to do…I hadn’t thought that far ahead. He asked me if I thought 3rd place was close and I said I thought we were moving really well, so unlikely. (Well, Jeff dropped a 5:35 mile in chase, so let the record show that he was moving pretty darn well too.) Then I said, “Well, I’m going,” and put as much distance as I could between he and I over the next mile and just held on and held on and held on and when I crossed the finish line I felt a wave of relief that I was done, the Golden Ticket to Western States earned, I’d actually won the thing, and, boy, was that one hell of a race.