I could hear my mother in-law trying to sooth Ruby in the living room while I packed my bags for Bandera. This was my fifth time running Bandera, and I had no idea how to pack. I hadn’t raced since Bandera in 2013 — just before I found out I was pregnant. Now Ruby was almost 3 months old, and I had no idea what to pack. I’d run while I was pregnant, but only for thirty minutes or an hour at a time – and mostly on a treadmill. And I hadn’t run more than four hours at a time since Ruby was born. Really I’d only signed up for Bandera because Joe Prusaitis had changed the belt buckle.
And I wanted it.
I hadn’t looked at which women were racing this year because I just intended to run 62 miles, get the belt buckle, chalk up some more “Did you see that lady nursing during the race?” stories, and head home. I wasn’t racing, and I had no idea how long 100 kilometers were going to take me. I’d bought 24 gels at the supermarket. And I’d also filled a few small plastic bottles with various leftover drink mixes from the pantry. I decided I’d load up my hydration pack for six hour loops. It was a calculation based on thriftiness; I didn’t have a gel sponsor anymore and I couldn’t “stomach” spending more than $24 on gels. I’d just eat from the aid stations if I ran out of gels. Joe uses Hammer products in his races, which are good products, but pretty much guarantee I’ll be heaving behind a sotol cactus within fifteen minutes of sucking them down. That’s how I’d spent most of the 2013 race. I have vivid memories of lying flat on my back hidden behind a sotol while the rest of the women’s field ran by. Grim. Regardless $24 was $24, and I wasn’t racing. I loaded up my UltrAspire racing vest and pinned my USATF number on the back. As a master’s runner, I’d decided I might as well sign up for the USATF 100k Championship. There was some prize money for being an older lady. And I figured I’d run the race enough that the experience might serve me against all the other older ladies running. I know how to run the last ten rocky miles of that race. Except Meghan Arbogast was running, so that wasn’t going to happen.
So I fed Ruby at 2:30 am, and drove out to the race start. It was foggy and deer hurled themselves at the car as I drove along. Still, I missed the ugly pre-race traffic, and I got two and a half hours of lovely, uninterrupted sleep in the front seat of the car before the race. I overslept, of course. I spent a couple hurried minutes sucking down coffee and fixing my ponytail. If I was going to be out on the course for 12 to 24 hours, I wanted to take at least a couple of good race pictures – especially as I got chestier throughout the race. I’d asked all the Red White and Blue runners to meet me at 7:10, so we could take a group picture before the start, and I was just going to make the meeting, when I realized I hadn’t pumped yet. Gargh! I thought I’d have a three hour window between each breast pumping session, and I’d stationed a battery-powered breast pump and a hand pump at two different aid stations accordingly. But that was assuming I was starting on empty. Gargh! I turned around, got back in the car, hunched over hoping the tinting on the windows was still working, and got to empty. Sorry Team RWB.
And then we got started, and I felt very fine for twenty miles. My legs felt light, and I felt happy, and I ran with Meghan and peppered her with questions. Meghan is a hero of mine. She embodies the kindness and humbleness characteristic of the best runners in the ultrarunning community.
I figured I’d hang with her as long as my body held out. I’ve never been much for running conservatively the first half of a race. I decided if I felt good, I should enjoy it and run along happily until I didn’t feel good. I hollered “Older ladies rock!” as Meghan and I came through aid stations. People chuckled and whooped. This “running along happily” stage lasted exactly twenty miles. And then nine months of jogging slowly wearing a belly band on a treadmill, two and a half months of actual running after the baby was born, a general lack of sleep, and running faster at Bandera than I had a right to, smacked me down hard. I dragged myself through the final ten miles of the first 50km loop plagued by thoughts of dropping.
I tried to stop thinking and just run. I convinced myself I should try to run the first 50km as best as I could and then make a decision about the rest of the race. At least I could clock a respectable 50km time if I had to walk the next 50km.
I was a disaster by the time I found my drop bag and pulled out the battery-powered breast pump. A friend showed me a privacy area they’d rigged up at the back of the aid station shed. A brown plastic tarp hung from the ceiling with a piece of paper labeled “Changing Station” taped to it. My friend dragged a folding chair over, and I sat down and started pumping – and crying. I was just so tired and I felt so exposed, with just a thin tarp between me and my bovine impression. I cursed myself for entering the 100km instead of the 50km. What the hell was I thinking? I wasn’t ready to run 62 miles. I’d been training hard for two and a half months, but 62 miles was 62 miles. I hadn’t respected the distance. And now here I was, half-naked, covered with sotol scratches, with another six or seven or eight or twelve hours ahead of me. The absolute pitifulness of it all actually made me smile — for half a second. I finished and walked back over to my drop bag. I wanted to drop. It made sense to drop. I’d overreached. And I didn’t have the luxury of finishing this race at all costs. I had to get Asa, my six year-old home, and then take care of the baby. I certainly couldn’t be dumb and land myself in the hospital with Rhabdo. And I worried I was risking Rhabdo with all these hours of running in the heat. What the hell had I been thinking?
My friend David Hanenburg saw me floundering and began talking to me. He told me we should start walking toward the next aid station. Just walking. I told him I should probably be done, that I wanted to be done, but that I was wearing the RWB shirt, and I couldn’t see a way of dropping while I was wearing it. I wasn’t injured. Yet. I certainly wanted to be injured. Or attacked by bees — anything that would give me a respectable reason for dropping while I was wearing that damn shirt. I just couldn’t see a way of trying to help RWB runners if I wasn’t willing to suck it up and finish what I’d started. But I really didn’t want to finish. I’ve had suffer-fest races. I’ve finished them. I don’t have anything to prove to myself by continuing to do that. But now I was wearing this dang shirt representing RWB and trying to embody the art of the possible.
I was just so tired, I told him. Just so freaking tired. (Except that I think I was swearing like a sailor.) I’d only averaged about five hours of interrupted sleep in the past week. And why the hell hadn’t I brought any music to listen to?
My pride also weighed me down. I didn’t want people to judge me. “She used to be good runner.” Maybe New Balance would drop me from their running team. Maybe RWB would choose someone faster to be their trail running liaison. I knew none of that mattered, but it plagued me. David told me people valued me for more than my race results. He told me to just run from aid station to aid station. And he told me it’d be okay to go ahead and get going. He was convincing. And so I got running.
I made it to the first aid station where Asa and all my friends were. Asa squirted me with a water gun and I left. I couldn’t imagine actually finishing yet, (still hoping for a bee attack), but I couldn’t drop right in front of him.
“Why did you give up, Mommy?”
It was an hour to the next aid station, and my body slowly started to feel better. I ran at a better clip. But I was still so tired. It was hard to keep my eyes focused. I’d leapfrogged back into second place from fourth place at this point. And I didn’t care. I promised myself a nap if I made it to the next aid station. I would lay down for an hour as soon as I got there. And then I’d think about dragging myself through the next twenty miles. The aid station folks didn’t know what of me when I told them I wanted to take a nap.
“We don’t have anything for you to lie on.”
I lay in the dirt and listened as the two girls behind me passed through the station. One volunteer said, “This one’s done with the race.”
Ten minutes passed and no bees attacked, so I got up. If I was going to finish, I might as well get closer to the finish line.
And I felt better.
And then I felt even better.
I started to run at a good clip. I ran up hills. I passed the two girls ahead of me. Melanie Peters ended up coming in third, and she couldn’t have been nicer to me or more encouraging when we were near one another. I will never forget her kindness and graciousness – and her good humor about the Bandera rocks.
The sun got lower in the sky and my leg turnover increased, and I ran as fast as I think I’ve ever run to the finish line.
I don’t know why I bounced back. Beet juice? Years of ultra running? Course knowledge? High fat, low carb diet? Good fortune?
I do know I wouldn’t have persevered without David’s friendship and encouragement — or if I hadn’t been wearing the Team RWB shirt – and known veterans in the organization who have worked harder and persevered through more than I ever will.
So in summary:
Two nursing stops. One nap. 10:39ish finish.
About an hour faster than last hear and only about an hour slower than my PR.
2nd place. $500. Western States spot. (Should I take it?)
I am not going to run Rocky 100 in two weeks. It’s not the extra 38 miles. I’m just too tired to stay up that long right now. And the baby is not going to start sleeping through the night in the next two weeks. I’ll run the Umstead 100 in April and figure out something else to do in February and March.
For you more mature readers: Meghan told me she didn’t start ultra running until she was 41.
RELATED: Get Off and Walk
Liza Howard lives with her husband and two children in San Antonio, TX. She has a MSEd. from Old Dominion University, a BSN from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and a BA in History from The American University. She races for New Balance, works as an NOLS and WMI instructor, and coaches with Sharman Ultra Coaching. Read more of her race reports on her website, LizaHoward.com.