After Rocky Racoon 2 weeks ago, which is put on by Joe Prusaitis and Tejas Trails, and is attended by hundreds of runners from all over the country, I was sort of expecting Cross Timbers to be a bit more provincial. It was smaller, and did not draw the same kind of national field, but it was every bit as well-run as RR. The check in, start-finish amenities, and the aid stations all exceeded expectations. The aid stations were well-stocked and well-staffed by helpful, encouraging volunteers, most of whom were experienced trail runners who passed along more than "Good job, buddy" but gave specific advice and knew the right questions to ask of the runners. The well-marked trail was easy to follow, even in the dark of night.
The mud on my shoes was nothing. You should have seen the mud caked on my legs.
Ahh, the trail. They call it the "Toughest Little Trail in Texas" and while I hesitate to pass judgement on any other trails, I know this is a tough one. It has just about everything a trail runner could want: it's rocky, rooty, hilly, windy, and muddy. There are several stream crossings--I lost count of how many. Because of the recent snowfall, there was still a lot of slippery, suck-your-shoes-off-your-feet mud, and portions of the trail had turned into muddy streams themselves. And not to be missed are the panoramic views of beautiful Lake Texoma.
The course for the fifty mile was an out and back and out and back--a 12.5 mile stretch repeated 4 times. The first portion started with a nice long climb, a hint of things to come. This 2.5 mile stretch had lots of climbing and some of the best lake views. The first aid station, at 2.5 miles, was the turnaround for the 5 mile race. For someone who's never run a trail race, this 5 mile race would be a perfect introduction. Not too long, but some tough sections to give a little flavor. From that point to the half-marathon turn around/aid station, as you might surmise, is ostensibly 4.05 miles. I am no cartographer or geographer, but I can definitively say that this is the longest 4.05 miles in Texas. Every time, it took forever. This section seems to have the most climbing, and the most technical sections (by which I mean parts of the trail where you almost have to use your hands to pull yourself along, where it's steeper than a steep staircase, or where only a mountain goat on speed could actually run down it. I don't know if that's the technical definition of a technical trail, but it works for me!)
From the 1/2 marathon turnaround to the 9 mile aid station is a bit of a break. This part has some dirt road, so it's smoother (but still a little steep in parts), and before and after the 9 mile aid station there are some open, grassy areas to run through. After that grassy area is some flat trail, then some moderate climbing to the 12.5 mile turnaround. Then turn around and do it again, in reverse! Then again, and again!
And my race? You may be wondering, what must one do to set a slowest-ever course record at Cross Timbers? It's not hard. Or maybe it is. Within a few minutes of the start, I knew that this race would be a test of my own mettle. I knew I wasn't fully recovered from Rocky Raccoon, but before the race I didn't have a sense of my own overall fatigue. I spent a good portion of the first couple of hours weighing the merits of taking my first DNF, but that was quickly replaced with a determination simply to finish, slow as it may be. A DNF briefly crossed my mind again when I returned to the start/finish, halfway through. I had left my drop bag in the tent, where the marathoners were kicking back with beer and burgers. Big mistake. The burgers smelled great, my car was only a few yards away . . . . But I pressed on.
From the start, I ran right behind a gentleman (whose name I never got) who said he's run about fifty 50 mile races. He appeared to be older than me, was bit heavier than me, and had a kind of energizer bunny quality about him, so I thought I could hang with him. I did until the 9 mile aid station, but he took off from there and I never did catch him. From that point, I ran alone, except for runners passing me, and runners going in the opposite direction, until 3 or 4 miles into the second loop. I had seen 2 ladies coming into the start/finish shortly after I left, and one of them, Laura from Beaumont, caught up with me. She's an experienced road runner and triathlete, but this was her first trail 50. I ran with her for a good while, I would guess 6-8 miles, and we had a nice time visiting. I think she was hanging back for me, and I eventually slowed and she took off ahead. A little while later, the other lady, Shishana, who now was being paced by her husband Don, came into the 12.5 mile turnaround as I was leaving. Shortly after, they caught up with me, so I decided to piggyback on Don's pacing. I ran with them for a bit, but as much as I enjoyed hanging out with them, had to fall back again. So for probably at least 2/3s of the race, I ran alone, and, especially on the second lap, I sometimes went hours without even seeing anyone else.
Speaking of seeing, I was already going pretty slow on the second lap, except for the time running with Shishana and Laura. About the time I got to the aid station at the half marathon turnaround, it was dark enough that I needed my headlamp. Did I mention that the trail from there to the 2 1/2 mile aid station is really, really long? It's even longer in the dark. This stretch was especially slow. Even if I had fresh legs, I wouldn't have been doing much running on that difficult section at night. From 2 1/2 mile to the end wasn't so bad. Energy has a way of returning when the finish is close.
One of the cooler finishers' awards I've seen
I'm sure everyone was ready to go home well before I got there, but the race crew was there to welcome me and give me a cool sweatshirt and a unique wood finisher's plaque. They even saved me a burger! I ate and visited with Shishana and Don and a few other finishers until the lights went out--the generator ran out of gas! I was humbled by the generosity and graciousness of the race staff and aid station workers who stuck around to help me to the finish and to serve me once I got there. To all of you, sorry I kept you from getting to bed any earlier.
A couple of personal notes: As as said in my Rocky Raccon report, I ran there in my VFFs, but, because I had heard how much more technical the Cross Timbers trail is, I chose to wear regular trail running shoes. I think I made the right choice, even though I ended up with a lima bean sized blister on my right foot. I also reported that I hurt so much after Rocky that I went to the doctor for x-rays and was diagnosed with a sprained ankle. I do hurt today, but less than I did the day after Rocky, and the offending ankle did not bother me at all during or after the race.
My Garmin did better than at Rocky, but we were still running through lots of trees, so the readings weren't very reliable. I think I'll stick with a regular watch for these races. In any case, the battery ran out when I was still several miles from the finish, so for the last couple of hours, I had no idea what time it was. My splits were something like this, roughly (I think): 3:00, 3:20, 3:50, and 4:50.
I'm still not sure if I am an ultramarathoner or a marathoner running out of my league. I know this for sure: I'd rather run on trails than roads. I also know this: as much as I fantasize about running a mountain 100 mile race, like Leadville or Western States, it will remain a fantasy as long as I ran like I did yesterday. Barely surviving a 50 at a few hundred feet about sea level does not build confidence that I can complete 100 at 11,000 feet. I'll keep plugging away, and with time and experience, maybe I won't set any more almost-slowest-on-the-course records. I am still on track to complete the 50 Mile Texas Style Grand Slam. I have 4 weeks to recover before Grasslands, then 2 weeks after that is Hell's Hills. Neither of those are as difficult as Cross Timbers, so, barring something unforeseen, I'm pretty confident about finishing.
One final note: I am so grateful to Kelly! She lets me leave her as a single mom to cart the kids around to basketball and soccer games while I run through the woods for hours in pursuit of a glorious t-shirt, medal, or plaque. She is really sweet to accommodate my time-consuming pastime. You might get a kick out of what she posted on her Facebook page this morning: "Paul finished his 50 mile race yesterday. For all 50 milers in the future, I'm sleeping in a different room -- the moaning and groaning and heavy breathing of a man in pain is even worse than a man snoring!" The things she puts up with.