Waco Five-O (50K) Race Report:4 a.m. is pretty early to be waking up on a Saturday. Especially without any caffeine (no “real” coffee in the house since Nell’s pregnancy, and no Starbucks open yet). Barely awake, I chugged down a breakfast shake, loaded up my gear, and checked the directions to Cameron Park in Waco, Texas. Like zombies, we (Nell had agreed to join me and drive me home after the run) made our way out the door.
Not surprisingly (especially given my recent race arrival history), we pulled up to the Redwood Pavilion in Cameron Park about six minutes before the start. While Nell checked me in, I made a last minute restroom pit stop.
There were about 25-30 runners lined up for the 50K event. They all seemed to know each other, and everyone was very relaxed. With little fanfare, race director Tim Neckar gave us a brief overview of the course. “It’s flat and straight along the Brazos for the first mile. Then you’re on your own.” Hmmmm….
With little fanfare, Tim gave us the old “on your mark, get set, go!” and we were off. A few guys took off toward the front, but the bulk of the runners kept an easy pace. I consciously held back, trying to settle into a pace no fast than 10 minutes per mile.
The Waco Trail Runs consist of 3 races – a 50K (the Waco 5-0), 20.66 miles (the Waco 2-0), and 10.33 miles (the Waco 1-0). The course is a 10.33 mile loop through various single-track trails in Cameron Park. Based on the race description (“a rocky, rooty, hilly and very challenging (but fun) trail run”), my goal was to keep an easy pace and not burn out early.
The first mile was just as Tim promised. Flat and straight.
And then we turned left and into the trails. And uphill. And then downhill. And then uphill. And then some switchbacks. And lots of rocks and roots.
The hills were pretty severe. There was no way I was running up them. Walking was a chore. The first hill—which I soon found out wasn’t even one of the more difficult ones—had me wheezing like an asthmatic by the time I reached the top.
Going downhill was even tougher. The grade was steep and rocky. So steep in some places that you were basically trying to slow yourself down enough that you wouldn’t go sprawling head over feet. Forget about running. I was just trying to stay upright.
After a mile or two, I found myself running the same pace as two other trail veterans, Miles and Rebecca. They both remarked several times on the difficulty of the course. “This is your first 50K? Wow, you picked up tough one to get started.”
After 3.5 miles, I finally came to the first aid station. It was surreal to step out of the dense trails onto a park road. The race volunteers were hanging out under a canopy and listening to Willie Nelson. They had a great spread set out on the table. Sodas, gummy bears, chips, bananas, sandwiches, water, Gatorade. You needed it, they had it. I wasn’t too hungry yet, so I drank a Gatorade and filled up my water bottles before heading out. The next aid station was four miles away.
More ups and downs. My mind was pretty blank. Just concertrating on making it up the path and not falling off the cliffs. At the second aid station, I ate half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and drank a few swigs of Coca-Cola. Good stuff.
I kept moving and eventually made it through the trails and back onto pavement for the last quarter mile of the loop. Tim had done a good job of setting up the end of the loop on a nice downhill. Made us all look good as we ran into the finish.
I finished the first lap in just under 2 hours. With a third of the course over, I snagged another sandwich and headed out for lap two.
Nothing much happened on the second lap. I was by myself the entire time. I completely zoned out. It was meditative. Before I knew it, I was back at the Redwood Pavilion, getting ready to head out one more time.
The third lap was when it really got tough. It had taken me four hours and fifteen minutes to run 20 miles. Two weeks ago, I had run a marathon in less time. Hills are hard. Heat is hard.
Coming through the start/finish aid station before beginning lap three, I remember thinking, "One more loop. I can do one more loop." I was tired. It was getting warm. My legs were heavy, my feet hurt. I could feel the tension in my shoulders and biceps. Mentally, I told myself ten more miles wasn't that big of a deal, and yet it was a HUGE deal.
Nell told me I looked great. She's a good liar.
I chowed down on half a PB&J sandwich, sucked down ten ounces of flat Coca-Cola, and took off before I could think too much about what I was obligating myself to do. Once on the trail, I was stuck. The winding, twisting, hilly, evil route was unforgiving and indiscernible from the two previous times I had trod this way. All I could do was continue moving forward, following the orange arrows stapled to the trees and the orange ribbons leading my way.
The first mile was the worst. Flat and straight, it seemed to go on forever. I hated it. In an odd, inexplicable way, I wanted the hills. At least they provided a break. My legs burned one way going up; they burned another way going down. Different muscle groups meant different pain. It helped.
I had caught up with a couple of guys who had been ahead of me for most of the run. One of the guys was reserved, quiet. The other guy was just plain pissed off. "It's too damn hot. This is stupid. Screw this." Over and over again. He was angry. I wanted him to either pass me or me to pass him. Not that he was directing his anger toward me. But I didn't like being within earshot. This had become a personal battle, and I didn't need someone else messing with my own struggle.
After the 3.5 mile rest stop (mile 24 overall), I stopped to empty and refill my water bottles. Mr. Angry passed me, as did Mr. Pacifist. I wouldn't see them again until the finish, when they both cheered me across the line.
All of the trails were marked with names, and they were rated like ski slopes. Blue, green, and black diamond. The RD had sadistically set the toughest uphills on black diamond routes. In fact, it seemed that most of the course was black diamond (although, in hindsight, there were only a few black diamonds--with lots of blue routes). The ones that really stuck out were the "Vortex" (very fast, scary downhill luge-like trail), the "Mix Master" (black diamond), "Power Line" (with a giant electric tower at the top), "Shyst" (which I affectionately renamed "Oh Shyst!"), "Act of Faith" (appropriately named), "Leanto" (yet another black diamond), and "Root Canal" (the last hill before heading back to the start/finish).
About 6 miles into the third loop, I got lost. I was literally at a fork in the road, and there was no indication which way to go. Damn. I didn't want to go the wrong way. I walked back a few hundred yards and thankfully another runner approached. I didn't recognize him. Turns out, he was running the 20 mile race and had started an hour after me. He was on his second lap and knew the way. He told me he had run into the same problem on his first trip through the same intersection. Somehow, I had made it through twice with no trouble, but on the third shot, I was confused. Well, I shouldn't have been. The two paths ended up at the same spot, and they only diverged for a short bit.
Back on the trial, I eventually made it to the 7.5 mile aid station, where I gratefully snacked on the last PB&J and a few sips of Coca-Cola. Running by myself for most of the past couple of hours, I had entered a very reflective state. Why am I doing this? What purpose does this serve? Why am I doing this? Who am I? Serious, why am I doing this?
I thanked the volunteer for helping me get this far, slammed a Gatorade, and headed off for the last three miles.
Up and down unforgiving hills. Alone. At one point I came across a family--two adults and a small child. They were hiking the trail I was traversing. I remember the parents telling their son to move out of the way. I remember telling them, "it's okay." That's about it.
A mile or so later, heading down a hill, another runner approached. He passed me easily. I gave him an encouraging yelp (all I could muster). He grunted in thanks.
Half a mile later, I was lost again. Or I thought I was. I couldn't remember if I had made the right turn or not.
Luckily, a couple suddenly appeared on the trail.
"Did you guys happen to see another runner with a race number coming through this way?"
"Yeah, he's only a few minutes ahead of you. He didn't look like he was moving too fast. If you hurry, you can catch him."
I didn't have the heart to tell them I was on mile 29, there was no chance I was going to catch anyone, and I was just happy to know I was on the right track. Instead, I said, "Thanks, I'll try to get there."
The 10.33 mile course had mile markers stapled to trees along the route. On the third lap, I had come to rely on those markers to let me know my progress. I passed the mile 8 marker, but still hadn't seen mile 9. As I flew through the "Vortex" (trying not to fall flat on my face as I soared down the trail), I kept waiting for the mile 9 marker to appear.
Where the hell was it? How far had I run? I was hurting and tired. Surely, the marker was here somewhere. But I never saw it.
Eventually, the bamboo forest just before "Root Canal" appeared. A welcome site. The last hill before the end.
As I trudged up the narrow path, I finally realized that I was going to finish the race. 31 miles on a trail 4 months before my 30th birthday and 5.5 months before the expected birth of my first child.
Nell, my sexy, intelligent, understanding, perfect (and pregnant) wife, was waiting for me at the finish.
Life is strange and wonderful and beautiful.