Monday, January 9, 2012

Bandera 100K Race Report

A new "boy band"? (courtesy

In my short ultra career, I've concluded two main things about ultra races:

- They're much more fun to run: more scenic, exciting terrain, great race organizers and competitors
- They're much more fun to travel with a group: namely "The EUG Crew", and the burgeoning "Team Oregon"

So even though it was costly to travel to Texas, I committed to Bandera for the opportunity to travel and stay with a great group of folks, including: my girlfriend Britt, Mr (and "Mrs") Balls, The Queen, and Hannah; as well as Pam Smith and Yassine Diboun.  Terrific ultra folk that would make it a great trip and a welcome respite from cold, rain and snow.

My other motivation was to chase a spot into Western States.  Top two (or three; if one of the top two already has a qualifier) gets you a "Golden Ticket" into the event; a[n increasingly] long shot, indeed, given how competitive the races are becoming, this one being no exception.   

I'd had a pretty solid post-TNF:  a "down" week of 50ish miles, followed by weeks of 100, 100 and 95 miles preceding race week.  Moreover, I was vacationing during the last two weeks, allowing much better rest and recovery.  I felt fit and efficient, and the mild weather in Wisconsin over Christmas, where I spent the holidays, afforded a precious opportunity to run dry, technical singletrack instead of the usual snow and iced sidewalks. 

We all convened in San Antonio on Thursday night and descended upon our rental house in the West Texas scrub.  Friday was spent relaxing in the sun in the morning, followed by a brief course run and check-in that afternoon.  I felt tired and sluggish - but I've learned that that is my brain and body sensing a major challenge and trying to conserve.  Pam and I did only the first 2K of the course before returning; just enough to get a preview of the rocky terrain.  As we turned back and descended, we talked about technical run strategy.  I'm not a good technical train runner, but I've concluded that the most important thing is to commit - to find a spot and plant on it, to keep the legs moving, and to keep the turnover high enough to clear any obstacles. 


The 7:30 AM start was glorious!  Thank You, RDs Joe/Joyce Prusaitis!  After the misery of TNF's 5AM start, I began doing morning runs; rising at or before 6AM every day and running at 7AM, even on vacation.  So when the alarm sounded at 5AM on Saturday, I felt well-rested and positive. 

Even in the dark at the start/finish, it felt warm, perhaps 50F.  I felt the heat and even humidity when I stepped off the plane two days prior.  I knew I'd need a ton of fluid.  To start I took but one bottle -- no hydration pack this time -- but with a waistpack holster in reserve for when it warmed.  I toed the start in the 2nd row, commensurate with my ranking in this stacked field, and counted down to "Go". 

Course Overview

Unless you've been there, it's impossible to "imagine" a course - even with place names, descriptors, or a profile.  But for this course, a good idea of the layout is helpful to understand.  So I'll simplify it:

Section 1 - "Opening Climbs" (Start/Finish to Nachos AS - 5.6 mi)

A half mile of glorious dirt double track cedes to rocky single track and technical, steep but runnable climbs and descents.  Two significant climbs through scrub prickly plants before leveling off.  Very little cover. 

Section 2 -  "Rough Riders" (Nachos to Chapas AS - 5.4 mi)

Mostly flat, very runnable single track into the lower wooded areas in the first half before crossing the park and entering a section of wide "double track" that looks like the worst landscaping paver job ever done -- large flat-ish rocks comprising most of the surface - some jagged, most were firm, but otherwise tenuous footing.  Very gentle up and down rollers.

Section 3 - "The Countryside" (Chapas to Crossroads 1 AS - 5.9 mi)

Money single track - 99% dirt, very little rocks in the midsection and outer portions of the park, the latter half running powerline trail and along borders of prairie lands.  Exposed with little to no shade.

Section 4 - "The Oven Climbs" (Crossroads 1 to Crossroads 2 AS - 5.0 mi)

Re-entering the rugged desert landscape: technical short ups and downs before one big climb with a few false summits.  Little to no shade; very hot. 

Section 5 - "The Holy Rollers" (Crossroads 2 to Last Chance AS - 4.2 mi)

Back into the woods; soft but tightly wound single track with short, gentle rollers with one short, gut-busting climb and descent. 

Section 6 - "Double Deuce" (Last Chance to Start/Finish - 4.9 mi)

A big climb, a rocky, winding plateau, and a steep technical descent - in duplicate - before re-joining the first half-mile of the course (half-mile of flat, smooth dirtroad) back to the start finish.  An homage to one of my favorite flicks

We would do all this in duplicate - two-50k loops.

"The Opening Climbs" #1
The race got out sensibly - easier than North Face, for sure, but not slow.  I lagged back a bit and watched the hot-running Tim Olson already separate himself from the field along the flat dirtroad.  I nestled into the pack as we hit the first technical ascents.  By then, Tim (and I believe Dave James) had gapped the field by 50m, with Nick and Dylan Bowman, another young up-and-comer, a bit back.  The rest of us were muddled in a heap behind them. 

I felt strong with controlled breathing - much better than the early stages of TNF.  I knew it would be a long, hot day and I could already feel some humidity as the sweat began to trickle on those early climbs.  I kept it easy and before long found myself rolling up and down with Yassine, half-heartedly dodging prickly sotol plants along the way.  We chatted a bit to keep things light; I even sprung a bit of "Seinfeld Trivia" on him before I gapped him a bit on the flat singletrack into Nachos AS. 

"Rough Riders" #1
The wooded single track was a great relief; I cruised here, looking to take advantage of anything runnable.  The second half of this segment was, at times, pure rock, requiring some mental focus and coordination, but I made efficient work of it.  Shortly before the AS, a gentleman in a black singlet with a hydration pack caught and passed me through Chapas AS.  I got my first of many great crewing assistance from Meghan and Britt.

"The Countryside" #1
Leaving Chapas AS, I figured myself to be in 7th or 8th place, but with defending champion "The Gentle Giant" and Yassine, among others, behind and looming big in my mind.  I made every effort to be efficient without pushing the pace; merely taking advantage of all things runnable.  I could see only the black singlet on the powerlines, but when we got to the zig-zagged prairie section, I caught a glimpse of most of the field ahead - including Nick and Dylan, who were several minutes up.  I felt pretty good, but the sun was now out en force and things were heating up...  Going into the AS, I pounded water and Gatorade and, for the first time, took two bottles at once - one hand-held, one in the holster.

"The Oven Climbs" #1
The section was confusing and difficult in the first go-round; I shuffled out, now full with the tons of fluid.  I was also a bit uncertain of the course, as the 25 and 50Kers were converging here.  Technical ups and downs, prickly sotol.  I felt very slow and wondered when I'd get reeled in.  Nevertheless, I still felt pretty strong. 

"The Holy Rollers" #1
Just meters before the AS, I was finally caught by Dave and Yassine.  We left the AS together and I got right behind them, lock-step in their strong but seemingly sustainable pace.  I had a feeling this was Dave's "grinder pace" - what he unleashes upon every race in its midsection, leaving nothing but pain and destruction in its wake.  But, like Yassine, I felt that hooking up with Dave would be a great opportunity to get some mental help and run strongly upward through the field.  I locked in fairly well, occasionally falling behind on the short climbs but able to reel in on the flats.  Yassine fell back a bit shortly before the big up and down over "Lucky Peak" before Last Chance.

"Double Deuce" #1
Dave and I rolled into the AS together but I hauled-a in and out in order to get some breathing room...which lasted an entire 100 meters before he overtook me.  He ran more of the first big climb and by the time we made the first descent of the double-dip, he was out of sight.  On the second plateau, I reeled in black singlet guy, who looked to be struggling. 

Into the last 800m "lollypop stick", I was able to see most of the field, except Tim:  I saw [who I think was] Dave James at the fork, then no one 'til I was nearly the turnaround.  I saw Dave first, then Dylan and Nick, only meters from the turn.  I looked to be in 6th place.  Cool.  I guzzled a Boost from Britt and got a ton of water and Gatorade before heading back out. 

The Second Lap - "Opening Climbs" #2

Leaving the start/finish to embark on the 2nd lap, I took stock: I felt tired, sluggish and weak.  The Boost and water made me bloated and running was difficult.  The thought of another whole lap, another 50k, was frightening.  It was hot and now I was heading out into the desert, alone.  I put those thoughts quickly aside - I had to - and focused on efficiency and turnover. "Keep moving!" / "You're doing great!".  On the brightside, I knew the other guys were struggling; I could see it in their faces.  It was promising to see three guys fairly close ahead. 

The first climb was slow but I my legs came around...only to begin to cramp: the hamstrings and quads.  Salt tabs, more water.  While I had two bottles, I wasn't two-thirds done with the lap before they were both drained.  Then, moments later, I bit it hard - stubbing my right foot and coming down on my right knee and hand.  I quickly got my feet and limped a bit and was fine.  Just as I'd regained my stride, and back on to the flat track, Yassine pulled up.  I let him pass but nestled in.  It was a great development to be able to run with guys when they passed.  We ran together for a half-mile before he began to have some gut issues and pulled aside.

On the 2nd climb, I saw Nick's green P-I jersey. He was at Chapas when I got there but left before me.  Cool.  I, on the other hand, was hot and dried out; the little cups weren't enough - while the AS filled my bottles, I grabbed the plastic water gallon directly and guzzled straight from the bottle, as much as I could stomach. 

"Rough Riders" #2
I saw short glimpses of Nick through the woods on the runnable singletrack; on the rough doubletrack, I gradually reeled him in.  He clearly wasn't feeling well - having come in with a chest cold - and was not talkative when I passed him a mile from Chapas.  I made no extra efforts - to pass or to push past.  We got into the AS within several seconds of each other, but I was in and out quickly; again guzzling from the gallon jug!  I got two water-filled hand-helds from Britt.

"Countryside" #2
A tough but runnable section, again.  There was nothing on my mind except efficient running...and cramp avoidance.  I was beginning to cramp consistently on this section, and I took salt liberally - both E- and S-caps.  I held them at bay, but my gut and my Mountain Dew-yellow pee told me I was going to be in trouble if I didn't get big-time fluid, quickly.  I did my best to coast along the prairie trails; Nick was visible but not gaining. 

I knew I needed that 3rd bottle; I'd been pounding two bottles and hammering straight from the jug at AS', but was still low.  I was eating a lot, and now cramping nearly as bad as TNF.  I'd have to get that 3rd bottle. I hoped to the Ultra Gods that Britt would be there and have my holster and 3rd bottle available.  And, incredibly, she had it completely filled and ready to go when I entered Crossroads 1.

After nearly an hour of exposed running in the afternoon sun, I was baking.  I needed to cool off.  I looked for a gallon jug and found one that read, "Head".  I thought, "Oh cool!  A jug for dousing!"  I grabbed it and poured it over my head and back.  An AS worker then came with a second bottle, saying, "You just poured HEED on yourself!"  Oops!  Still felt good!  I grabbed my three bottles and headed out. 

"Oven Climbs" #2
More tough running, more cramping, but I was able to keep it at bay with liberal salt and mechanical cues: it turned out, I could relieve both the quad and hamstring cramps with a bigger, longer stride - effectively "stretching" both muscles long and short.  And by doing so, I actually sped up.  I walked much more of the big climbs as I struggled to keep my temperature and cramps in check.  I saw nobody but the odd 50- and 100-K walk/jogger.  Thoughts of the miles remaining loomed in my mind (and with them, panic and despair), but I shoved those away.  Positive self-talk:  "Doing great!" / "You're in 5th place!  A spot on the podium!".

"Holy Rollers" #2
I rolled into Crossroads 2 feeling better than I felt leaving #1 - a huge development.  In addition to Meghan and Britt, both LB and Bryon were there, and they were pumped up:

"You're in fourth place!  Dave and Dylan aren't feeling good and you're only three minutes back from a WS spot!" 

They even ran with me for a few meters past the AS.  "Wow, they're really excited!", I thought.  Cool!  Again, I pushed the flats as much as I could with good mechanics - emphasizing arms and trunk, and a quick turnover.  LB had given me a whole pouch of salt tabs, and it was a life-saver - I took half of them on this four-mile section.  Again, no signs of Open Men; only the odd walk/jogger. 

Despite the cramps, I was moving well.  And excited.  I'd had some fun, interesting songs "in the Brain iPod" during the day.  In the days preceding the race, we'd locked into two pop FM stations, so I ran the first half of the race with this tune in my head, then, as things were getting tough, I switched to this humorous one (an homage to my good friend Jake). 

Running over those brutal rocks, through razor-sharp sotol and brutal heat, I thought, "This is it.  In the exact position that I was hoping to be: a 'Golden Ticket' only minutes ahead".  As I ran along the Rollers, it was time for some fun

I rolled along with Grandpa Joe in my head, up and over the Lucky Peak perhaps faster than I did the first time, then quickly along the flats to Last Chance.  My last chance.  LB and Bryon were there again: "You're only 90 seconds back from third and Dave within three minutes!"  They were so pumped their excitement was infectious.  I guzzled more liquids and grabbed a last cache of salt and gels. 

Me: "How many miles to the finish?"
LB:  "Five!  We did it in 40 minutes this morning!"
Me:  "I can do five miles standing on my head!"

My comment was not bravado, but a direct (but lost to all but me) reference to one of my beloved texts, "Deep Survival".  In it, Laurence Gonzales talks about the physical and mental characteristics of survival.  Paramount to survival is one's ability to "go within oneself", to focus sharply only on the immediate task on hand, and to embrace "The Pattern" of physical and mental execution in order to survive and succeed.  My statement was a quote from a life sentence prisoner, who said, "I could do a nickel [five year's prison term] standing on my head". 

I left the aid station with good energy but ongoing cramps - however, I had at least a half-dozen salt tabs and three full bottles.  I pushed to the base of "Cairn's Climb" (the first of two) and was amazed to see a green P-I jersey midway up, hiking.  It was Dylan.  Cool. 

I ran as much as I could, channeling my experience on Hardesty.  I ran 75% of that climb and got within 50m of Dylan when he crested the climb.  He looked back and saw me.  Then he took off! 

With a minute he'd double that lead on the first plateau.  I made no counter-surge; I was still cramping, so I gulped salt tabs with reckless abandon and pounded water, and turned to "The Pattern" - "Quick feet! Use the gluts and abs! Arms!  Trunk!".  I'd reel in a bit, he'd look back and surge again.  This became our new pattern.

Dylan is a talented mountain runner from Colorado. I thought for sure he'd burn me on the closing flats and downs, as Wardian had done at the end of TNF. So my plan was to pick my way through "The Deuce" and keep him as close as possible - survive the technical - then get down to the flat, drop all my gear, and hammer with all my might to the finish. 

We made the first descent, and I lost sight of him; however, I was running down the rocky stuff well, determining at long last that on technical downhill you have two choices - "short step or long step".  I went long.  Monster strides, quick turnover, high feet, hoping to God I didn't trip again. 

Another climb; this one more gradual and runnable.  There he was again.  The 200m gradually shrank.  Rocks galore, but long strides gobbling up the trail.  We were within 2K of the finish and just about to drop down when I finally reeled him in.  And, to my surprise, he stepped off the trail and let me pass.  He said some words and I responded, "Let's go!", knowing that Dave might not be very far ahead.

I ran that last descent like I stole something: flying on technical tread like never before.  Panic became excitement, but that too is dangerous; I put it aside.  I looked back only once and saw nothing on the switches, and in short time hit the flat.  Just past the fork I saw LB and Hannah.  They were as pumped as me!  I tossed them my bottles and gave them a fist pump, then - as planned - hammered with all my might to the finish.

That last quarter mile was the most rewarding of my career - 3rd place overall at the National Champs, and a coveted WS spot!  I rounded the bend to the finish with more fist pumps and cheers, crossing the line in 8:38:53. 

Tim Olson stormed the field and took the title.  Dave took second, only 25 seconds in front of me.  Dylan finished in 4th, 72 seconds behind.  Nick Clark was 5th, back at 8:57.  The top four had a spread of <12 minutes, with places 2-4 in <2 minutes.   

The Top Five, L to R (Courtesy Tim Olson, Dave Mackey, me, Dylan Bowman, Nick Clark.
  Post-race: tons of "violent" high-fives to Dave and Tim, who I now get to join at "The Big Juan" in the Sierra Nevada!  Big hugs from my wonderful crew of Meghan, Hannah, LB, and Britt (who also got some salty smooches).  Cheering the other finishers, which included Pam in for 3rd place, having survived some low-spots, herself.  Dinner in town with the crew + Dave, as well as women's field winner, Cassie Scallon and Sean Meissner. incredible day.  What else could I say?  Tim put it pretty well: "You had the race of your life!".  I think he's right: a breakthrough.  But in my mind, I simply used the lessons impressed upon me by my great mentors and experiences of the past year:  take care of yourself, and never, ever, ever give up. 

But more importantly, I was buoyed mightily by tremendous course aid and encouragement from "Team Oregon", and simply a ton of luck. 

The Grades

Pacing: A.  Solid.  I never, ever felt like I pushed it until the last 9 miles.  I simply worked on efficiency and sustainability.  I missed a key watch split at last chance, but here's what I have:

Opening Climbs
45:30 / 53:56

Rough Riders
39:30 / 47:10

Country Side
44:48 / 51:31

Oven Climbs
37:23 / 50:17

Holy Rollers
33:15 / ?

Double Deuce
40:43 / (75:24)

Notable: huge drop offs on the second half...except for the last nine miles.  From Crossroads 2 to the finish:

1st Lap: 74:xx
2nd Lap: 75:24

Mechanics: B+/A-. Very solid.  I ran as evenly as I did (the [SECOND*] fastest second lap 50k of the field) thanks to mechanical focus: quick feet, trunk rotation, which enabled me to "gulp" big chunks of trail instead of shuffling.  On a downside, I am much more sore through my left leg, namely the lateral quad - ongoing evidence I'm still overloading here.  We'll see how bad the trunk was if race photos emerge. 

(*EDIT - 1/10/12 - Per the official splits here, Tim ran a ~4:35 to my 4:38 in his second lap.  Kudos to Tim again).

Hydration/Fuel/Electrolyes: A-.  NAILED IT, as much as I ever have.  While I cramped on and off for the entire last third, I kept in check.  I used three bottles over that last section, and only at the finish did I pee clear.  Huge kudos to my crew; Meghan and LB for getting me tons of salt - all of which I used! - and "crew MVP" for Britt for having my 3rd bottle + holster available after I'd cast it aside!

Mental Toughness: A-.  Strong.  Even.  That's it, quite simply.  I did nothing heroic.  I just kept moving.  I never surged, but I never floundered.  It was a blast to run fast at the end. 


I'm still in shock and disbelief, with the WS qualifier - and all that it entails - only beginning to sink in.  It was tough to think about being excited for WS, having just endured that much discomfort - maybe moreso in the 24 hours post-race.  But I feel very lucky and privileged.  Thanks again to everyone who's supported me, including the huge throng of folks back in MN and WI!  Hats off to the other great competitors, and I sincerely hope that Dylan can get a spot, either by virtue of his razor close margin at Bandera, or through another MUC race in 2012. 

As for me: my "2011" season is now over.  Time for a week of rest, for The Big Juan!!!


ADDENDUM (1/9/12 - 6PM PST):

It goes without saying - but never should - how appreciated the RDs and race volunteers are in general, and were for me at Bandera 100K.  Having volunteered at an ultra, I appreciate the effort and love put into it.  They put on a terrific event that I would recommend enthusiastically to all-comers.

As with all elements of my ultra performance, my displays of gratitude and aid station etiquette are works in progress.  Very sorry, indeed, for any issues created by "guzzling" from the gallon at the AS', and for not being as overtly thankful going into and out of AS' as I felt!  That's something I'll continue to work on!  Thank you again!


  1. Great read Joe, truly inspiring. Glad to hear the brain shuffle included "I'm sexy and I know it." Good times. Rest up, Project M-10 is going to be epic.

  2. That was one of the best race reports I have read Joe. I was on the edge of my seat. Love the nicknames of the sections and you did a great job capturing the character of the course. Congrats on a great performance on some tough trails.

  3. Awesome work out there and great detail. I have to say the part about pouring HEED all over you had me busting out laughing... totally something I would do! I hope your awesomeness continues for 2012!

  4. So are you from WI or MN? Well anyhow great race!!

  5. In the future, your WI/MN fan delegation prefers if you would just run in 3rd place from the beginning of the race so that we wouldn't have to monitor our blood pressure to thwart off heart attacks while watching the twitter feed in the last few miles...which from this vantage point seemed to take longer than the initial 60 miles!Great race, great read! Congrats and hugs!

  6. @Jake: Thanks a bunch! WS will be tons of fun, as will the prep this spring! Might be using that Hide-A-Bed again...

    @Chris, @Whelchel: thanks for the well-wishes and for presumably reading all that, and not being my mom...

    @"Meredith": me starting in 3rd might've meant finishing in 30th. Plus a little excitement is good cardiac rehab.

    @Kurt: Lived years 0-11 in Eveleth, MN, then 11-18 in River Falls, WI. Saw a bunch of you TC Running Co's out at TNF. Glad to see some folks supporting ultra runners in the Twin Cities!

  7. Ah, there it is. Nice report! I got to catch you running it in just before the finish (across from LB & Hannah). Sweet run and what a story.

  8. Congrats, again, on a great great race!! So enjoyed spending the day with Britt! FYI, the baggie of salts for the back end of the course were Metasalt Thermolytes. (Just in case you liked them, so you could try them out as you prep for WS). Paul and I are big fans of them. Best to you both in your training this spring! Meredith and Paul Terranova

  9. @"Other" Meredith: Nice meeting you, and thank so much for the mid-race salt and post-race refreshment! Great job crewing for us out there! Tell Paul I said congrats again!

  10. Good stuff, Joe. Hell of a race. You poured Heed all over yourself! Brilliant. That one got a belly laugh.

  11. Oh, my, you picked up Dylan and almost closed on Dave! All in the last 5! It was so much fun from our "Last Chance" AS watch which one will use that last chance best, and you did. Congrats on a WS spot. I was talking to LB, like, where did I hear the name? Besides AL50, I am not sure, but now we know better:)

  12. @Meredith Terranova- Thanks again for your great crew support on Saturday! I had such a fun time and am so thankful that we meet and were able to co-crew the day together.
    Congratulations to Paul on his great race! I have to say, I was very relieved when he began to do push-ups after dropping to the ground! For a moment I thought he was in need of the medical tent! ;)
    Looking forward to seeing you both in Auburn for WS100 2012!

  13. Great report and a huge congrats on the Golden Ticket. Look forward to seeing and watching you at WS.

  14. Awesome. Happy I found your blog too. Congrats and good luck in 2012.