March 20, 2011

TEXAS: Part 2 - Texas Country

Once inside Texas country I headed west on I-10 through Houston and into San Antonio.  Eastern Texas houses most of Texas' major cities.  As you move westward the towns get smaller as the populations dip to 200 people!  Many towns have no gas, food, or services so you have to be cautious.  

By pure luck I arrived at the airport minutes after Lisa's Delta flight touched down.  The afternoon rush was just beginning as I drove north of the city to the airport.  Lisa, enter stage Left.

Picking up Lisa was great for two reasons.  First I no longer had to drive (24 hours in two days so far) and I had someone to talk to.  Lisa was not quite as happy since her final approach into San Antonio was a little bumpy.  So far everything was right on - Lisa and I were safely in Texas and heading to Rocksprings.  Texas was peppered with crosses and other signs of Christianity.  On our way out of San Antonio we saw a magnificent cross up on a hill.  It was gigantic.  

Rocksprings is a very small town (pop. 1200) for us East Coasters but it is large for western Texas.  After a long day of driving we coasted into town on an empty tank.  We filled up the Jeep, earned some weird stares, and headed to Camp Eagle where the 50 mile Nueces Endurance Race was being held.  Characteristic of any trip, the GPS took us down the wrong dirt road for several miles over rough terrain.  Lisa was driving and seemed very excited to observe the goats, cows, and sheep.  She didn't mind that the Jeep was being tossed back and forth by the pot holes on this abandoned dirt trail.  I closed my eyes.  Eventually after a few arguments we turned around and drove 30 miles to the opposite side of town and found the right road.  By then it was dark and we had not eaten dinner or set up our tent for the night.  We did eventually settle into the camp and make dinner.  Lisa's soup attracted a young buck, who walked right up to the stove and sent her running into the Jeep.  At eleven o'clock we slipped into our sleeping bags for a couple hours of shut eye before the race @ 5am.  

5 am sure came quick.  I shuffled out of the tent and quietly ate my breakfast of Cliff bars and gatorade in the Jeep.  Lisa is NOT a morning person so I didnt even attempt to wake her up.  At this point it struck me that I still needed to check in and warm up -- can you warm up for a 50 mile race?  Before I knew it I was on the starting line with twenty other crazy runners as we prepared ourselves for the unknown.  Miraculously Lisa woke up, found the starting line in the dark and snapped some photos right before the race start.  It then dawned on me that we would be racing in the dark for the first ten miles.  Thank God I had been working a lot and was familiar with running at night with my headlamp.  

As the race starter counted down... 10, 9, 8,.... 5, 4, 3, 2, "GO", I remember thinking "what have I got myself into here".  Six miles was the longest I had ever raced before and now I was toeing the start line for a 50 miles?  Due to time and money constraints I knew nothing about the wilderness I was about to plunge into.  Before I knew it the race was on and the twenty of us crept blindly into a dark and wild Texas.

After running for two hours, by glowsticks dangling precariously from trees, the sun finally crept over the Eastern Texas horizon.  Fortunately for us runners the temperatures were cool and the newly lit world was breathtaking.

This race was unlike anything I had ever seen before.  What we ran on, through, over, under, and inside of cannot be expressed through words but I will try my best.  The trails were on a private ranch called "Camp Eagle" where extreme mountain bikers and adventure junkies come to go buck wild.

Trails here were not nicely groomed paths but rocks, loose soil, tree roots, cacti, and other obstructions that were located between trail markers (yellow signs with arrows).  At several points you could not even walk.  You had to stop and duck under a tree or jump a fence or wade through the river.  The fact that there was no solid trail or consistent pace is just brutal for your legs and the rest of your body.

I started out cautiously and stuck behind the one man leader, Dave James of Texas, for the first 12 miles.  Overall the pace was really slow and it was hard for me to run slow (6:45 -7 minutes a mile) and not extend my legs to the pace (5:45 - 6 minutes a mile) I was used to in collegiate running.  At the first large hill (more like mountain with avalanche) I kept my steady pace and dropped James (60 lbs heavier than I).  For the first time in my ultra career I had the lead and it felt good.  The excitement of being in the lead took over and my pace slowly raised until I was flying.  It felt great to let the legs fully extend but it would ultimately be my demise.

Camp Eagle's 50 mile running course was divided into three 16.7 mile loops with aid stations every 5 miles.  At each aid station I would quickly chug a cup of water and grab some gel packets for the road.  Eating is very important in these prolonged efforts and I still haven't been able to balance my water and food intake with energy expenditure.  The first loop seemed to take forever but my time was fast at 2 hours.  All the volunteers at the aid station were surprised when I showed up alone so quickly.  Lisa was waiting for me at the end of the first loop with my hat, glasses, and food for the second lap.  I stayed maybe one minute to exchange clothes and food and then took off.  The second loop was much harder because I knew what was coming.  Some of the initial excitement had worn off and the lactic acid has taken hold in my body.  On top of that I was now beginning to pass other runners on a trail that is not a trail.  It was awful.  By the end of the second loop my body had all but shut down.  30 miles in and my race was over.  I had never been to a point where my mind was willing my body to move and it refused. I sat for a moment trying to figure out how I was going to finish this second loop without injuring myself.  Somehow I mustered the strength to finish that loop.  

Awaiting me was an excited Lisa who knew I had a large lead and thought I was going to win.  She was disappointed when I told her I couldn't finish but I wasn't.  I told her and the race organizer, Joe Prusaitis, that "this race was the most amazing and awful experience I have ever had".  The result wasn't as important as the experience.  However, it was difficult to watch the other runners come through and continue but I knew inside that I would be back... and stronger.  All in all I ran 33.4 miles in 4 hours and 10 minutes and had be in the lead the entire race.  Lisa helped me limp back to the tent site where we took a well deserved 2 hour nap.  After our nap we packed up the tent, ate a quick lunch and headed deeper west into Texas.

March 19, 2011

TEXAS: Part 1- Incoming

On Thursday, March 3rd I kissed Chloe goodbye and ventured off into the quiet darkness of a Spring Raleigh morning.  The sun was just poking through the clouds as I veered onto I-85 South into Durham.  Interstate 85 was the first of many roads that would lead me to the last unexplored area of the United States (for me that is).  I have been to Atlanta many times but have never traveled deeper into the pine savannas and arid deserts with cacti, and tumbleweeds that characterize the   
    South East.  

Once through Atlanta, I jumped on I-65 through the Florida panhandle and into Mobile, Alabama.  Alabama was full of green as Spring was in full bloom.  Pine plantations and apple orchards lined the highway to Florida and one of the only routes that traverses the entire U.S.  Interstate 10 is the southernmost route that connects the East and West coasts with 2,600 miles of pavement.  It's official name is the "Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway".  

My extended stay in Florida of twenty minutes began when I realized I had forgotten to bring cash for camping.  Apparently grocery stores in Florida are not aware of cash back.  My request for cash back on a purchase of chocolate, graham crackers, and marsh mellows was turned down by the cashier.  She looked at me like I was trying to steal money... maybe I could pay for the campsite with smores!

My bad luck quickly turned into a string of misfortune as the campsite, Shepard State Park, in Biloxi, Mississippi was closed upon my arrival.  Darkness had taken hold as I continued driving through Mississippi and into Louisiana with no end in sight.  At this point I had already been on the road for 13 hours.  I seriously debated sleeping at the Louisiana welcome center / rest area.  Then it hit me, New Orleans was not far and if I stayed there I would have less driving tomorrow.  Thanks to I booked a cheap $50 room in New Orleans where I could get a good night sleep.  At least that is what I thought would happen.  

As I pulled onto St. Charles Street to check in at the hotel I heard a deafening noise.  Then I saw people running in every direction, intoxicated with layers of beads dangling from their necks.  It turns out I was in the middle of the first wave of what is formally known as Mardi Gras.  I have never seen so many people in one area in my life.  People (grandparents, adults, teenagers, college students, babies) standing on ladders, dancing in the streets and fighting over items launched from the giant floats.  The parade went on for hours with police, floats, bands and dancers marching down the street till midnight.  Nothing beat the old men dressed in tight gym shorts, headbands and tube socks dancing to "Give it to me baby" (See video below).
Day Two - Friday March 4, 2011
After a short sleep I headed out into a much quieter downtown New Orleans.  As I left the city I was able to see the Super Dome where the citizens of New Orleans hid from Hurricane Katrina.  I can't image what that must of have been like especially with the roof issues.

While driving westward on route 10 you can still see houses destroyed from Katrina.  Much of the damage came from the flooding when the levies of Lake Ponchartrain (below) gave out.  In Louisiana, route 10 is almost entirely a causeway.  Just miles and miles of bridge.  I was surprised to see that some Louisianans lived in shacks on the water below the causeway.  Another interesting fact about Louisiana is that the state is divided into 64 parishes.  To me, the word "parish" has always been a religious term.  Signs along route 10 announced the entry to New Orleans parish and Baton Rouge parish.  This was interesting to me because the word "parish" has always been used as a religious term. 

Somehow I managed to arrive right on time to sit for hours during the morning commute into Baton Rouge.  My drive time had to be perfect to meet Lisa at the San Antonio International Airport (SAT) when she arrived at 3:30pm Central Time.  The morning was quickly turning into afternoon as I yo-yo'd with semis and pick up trucks.  Everyone in the South East has a 4 wheel drive pick up truck... everyone.  Eventually the traffic subsided and I cruised across the Sabine (Spanish for cypress) River into Texas.  After driving for two days and 1000 miles I was finally in the Lone Star state!


March 7, 2011

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Today we are visiting Guadalupe Mountains National Park on the border of Texas and New Mexico. On our hike today we headed up to the Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas at 8600 ft. Tomorrow we head to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico!

Big Bend National Park

Lisa and I have spent the last 3 days in Big Bend National Park. This photo was from our tent on the first morning at 5400ft. The site was called Chisos Basin. Off to Guadalupe Mountains NP tomorrow.

March 4, 2011

The Road to TEXAS

Short recap for today.... Drove around 900 miles and loved it. I left Raleigh around 8am and ended up in .... New Orleans! at 11pm. On the drive I went through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, MIssissippi, and Louisiana. Stopped in Atlanta, Mobile, Biloxi and New Orleans. THe plan was to camp at Shepard State park near Biloxi, MS but I ended up driving on and finding a cheap hotel room in New Orleans. As I pulled onto St. Charles Ave in downtown New Orleans (my hotel) I heard a deafening noise. The entire city of New Orleans was out on this street screaming and dancing.

A parade was being held since Mardi Gras is around the corner. What started as a quiet night at a campsite turned into a roaring party with beads, floats and dancing. Here is what I got myself into....

And so it begins...
Originally from Strongsville, OH, I spent 8 years in Raleigh, North Carolina and have since recently moved to Missoula, MT. I have been a runner all my life and have recently started pursuing ultra marathons. Any excuse to be outside and on the trails.