Me: “Hey ,honey ?! Want to run Sky Island 25k? My husband: “What? Oh, sure, why not? Sign me up! ”
Way back in March of this year, I got the email for priority registration for previous runners of the Spectrum Trail Racing Sky Island trail race which took place September 22nd. Even though this race is one of the hardest race I’ve ever run,and last year didn’t go very well, I still keep going back for more. I like a challenge! I was on my computer signing up and I yelled into the other room to ask my husband if he wanted me to sign him up, too. He had a goal of running a half marathon this year and this race offers a 25k distance as well as a 50k, so I thought it might work. Sure, why not, he said, and I signed him up. Plenty of time to train!
A little background info
What makes this running story extra special is that my husband has a surgically rebuilt leg. Not a prosthetic, his leg was saved from amputation and reconstructed from his own bones and muscle tissue. He has some pretty impressive scars all over his body. Riding his motorcycle home from work one day in 1989, through no fault of his own, he was run over and nearly died. Along with being unconscious for a couple of weeks, suffering severe pain, and having multiple surgeries, he spent a year lying in bed, then gradually using a wheelchair and then another four months learning to walk again . Surgeons did a good job of making his leg functional, but his hips are not level so it’s like having one leg longer than the other, which contributes to significant knee and hip pain when he runs. But my husband is a a determined man. I met him at a Halloween party when he was just getting back to being able to ride motorcycles and work again. We hit it off right away and were married in May.
Fast forward to when I first discovered the joy of running and racing back in 2011. Soon after, my husband decided he wanted to try it , too. Doctors had told him he would have limited mobility and would probably need a knee replacement someday after they rebuilt his leg, but he had already spent over 20 years walking, standing and working on his feet in a shop all day on that leg. Why not try running with it? We signed up for the same local 5k race that had been my first race, one year later. He pushed my daughter in her special needs jogging stroller and had my two youngest sons dragging along with him, so it wasn’t fast, but he had fun and it sparked his competitive spirit to try to do a faster race. After about two years of running 5k road races , he switched to trail races with me in 2015. Because of the way his leg looks, he gets some stares and curious looks which makes him feel a bit uncomfortable, but he doesn’t mind answering the question, What happened to your leg?!
A temporary setback
Evidently I inspire him, because when I decided to start a run streak , he decided to try that as well. Even with his bad leg he was running at least one mile every single day for 115 days! He was doing well, feeling great about his accomplishment, and then one day a dog startled him in the dark and he made a sudden movement which caused a painful and lasting knee injury in the rebuilt leg. This was really unfortunate because running had greatly improved the depression that has plagued my husband off and on for the past 10 years. He had to end his streak and stop running for many months. Even walking was very painful and he went back to using a cane.
But eventually he noticed his leg was feeling almost normal and decided to try running again. His pace is slower now and he’s lost a lot of fitness and gained some weight back that he’d lost from his earlier running but he is very happy to have the ability to run again. . He is only running once a week now, sometimes twice, and that seems to be the magic key to preventing too much leg pain, which leads us back to the current race on the schedule.
I really didn’t know if my husband could run this particular race. The course is rocky, technical, has big climbs and no shade. I can barely handle it with two good legs and pretty good fitness! He’s had some blood pressure issues and even heart concerns in the past , but was in generally good health. But I didn’t want to push him too hard. I knew he’d have to train very specifically and consistently. Once we got started , he showed me that he was serious and put in the miles even when he didn’t feel like it or it hurt. He told me that he mentally turned it over to me as far as how he stayed motivated. He listened to my advice and heeded my warnings that this race was not going to be easy. We gradually increased his run distance until he ran his first ever unofficial half marathon, or 13.1 miles, on the road. This was a very special milestone! After doing that he felt sure that he could make it 15 miles. To prepare for the race, we ran a few times on some trails that had some good steep and rocky climbs and descents to get ready for the race. There were a couple moments where we both thought he might pass out on those climbs. We also ran some flat, easy dirt trail miles. Most of our training was in the usual, awful Texas summer high temperatures with high humidity, so we were looking forward to heading to the cooler temps of the high desert the first weekend of Fall.
After a fairly busy summer of running, training, and traveling, September finally rolled around which means I was back to work homeschooling my kids, plus my son had a birthday, so the first few weeks passed quickly. We didn’t run very much in those weeks which always makes a runner nervous. Finally race week arrived! The days flew by with me trying to get packed while still teaching school and making sure we had everything we needed for the trip. He was getting pretty nervous and told me he wasn’t sure he could do it. Maybe he would just be happy with 13.1 . Just taper madness, I reassured him. Oddly I was not nervous at all about the running even though I knew how tough the course is. I was more concerned about getting him to the finish line happy and uninjured. I knew this was going to be a big challenge for both of us, but that a successful race would be so rewarding.
The race location, Davis Mountains State park, is 550 miles from home, in far West Texas, near the famous town of Marfa. Leaving behind our dogs, cats, older sons and my daughter who was being cared for by my sister, we hit the road Friday morning with the youngest kids, a cooler full of drinks, bags of snacks, and plenty of nervous excitement. Even with an 80 mph speed limit for much of the route, it still takes a long time to get there. There was rain in the forecast and sure enough, it started pouring down so hard that my husband could barely see the road and then something crazy happened. The rain was so heavy it was beginning to flood the highway and water started coming into the van under the door! That has never happened before. It kinda freaked us out and it got some of our stuff wet , but not too bad. We made it through the storm okay, but some of our friends who were a little behind us were not so lucky. There was a flash flood that covered the highway and traffic was blocked for a few hours.
After escaping the flash flood, we drove into better, COOL weather, and finally arrived at our destination right on time and got our room keys. We were among the lucky ones to get a room in the lodge which was the headquarters and start/finish line of the race. The historic Indian lodge was very nice and my kids and husband took a moment to relax in our comfy room and check out the cable TV, which we don’t have at home, while I went to explore. I found the starting area being set up and then just took a moment to look at the beautiful location. This is one of my favorite places in Texas. Later we went into the nearby town of Fort Davis for dinner at a favorite tourist spot, The Drug Store. Not my best pre-race meal ever, a small, lukewarm baked potato, but the service was very friendly. My husband and kids enjoyed their burgers and fries. We thought it was super funny that multiple employees kept coming by offering them soda refills. Seriously, you can only drink so much!
We didn’t sleep much the night before the race, but that’s not unusual. The bed was okay and it was nice and cold in the room, it was just race anxiety. Our phone alarms went off at 5:00 even though we only had a one minute walk to the start and our race started at 7:15. Gotta have plenty of time to eat a snack, drink coffee, get dressed, and poop! I almost forgot that we still needed to pick up our timing chips. It was chilly (for us) , mid 50s, and misting rain, but we figured it would warm up a bit, so we weren’t quite sure what clothes to wear. First I put on capris, but then I decided I might get hot, so I changed into shorts at the last minute. My husband wore shorts and we both grabbed our lightweight wind breakers which we ended up shedding and stuffing into our packs about two miles into the race, but they were nice while we needed them. We both wore hats, plus our hydration packs which I filled with GU Roctane hydration drink. I also packed a few gels and a couple of snacks. He chose to run in his Brooks Ghost 10 which aren’t trail shoes, and I wore New Balance MT910 trail shoes.
Ready, set , go!
We found the crowd of nervous and excited runners staying warm and waiting for the pre-race briefing in the lodge living room , which they call the lobby. Then it was time to line up in the sprinkling rain outside! The sun was not quite up so we used our headlamps for the first mile, then we stashed them. The race started off with a run down the asphalt park road to the park entrance, then down the side of the highway in the grass, under a bridge and then back up the road to the trail head on the other side of the highway. This was a nice warm up. The first part of this trail was pretty flat, including two crossings of a dry, but rocky, creek bed which had had about 8 inches of water in it the previous two years, so we had a pretty decent pace for the first 3 miles. After that we slowed down a lot as we climbed the first mountain on a long and winding trail. We were both encouraged by how good we felt and by the wonderful cool,cloudy weather.
After we made it to the top of the approximately 550 foot gradual climb, reaching around 5400 feet elevation, where the aid station was located, we began a 6 mile loop around the top that included some small inclines, and tons of rocks and awesome views. We were feeling good and enjoying the awesome views from the mountain, talking and keeping a fast walk/jog pace. Sadly we did not have any wildlife sightings up there. Last year I saw a tarantula, frogs, and a Javelina . We started getting tired towards the end of the loop and slowing down. We got passed by one of the few people that were behind us when we had to stop to pee a few times and then to re-tie a shoe. The course was so rocky on that section near the end of the loop that we were mostly walking because both of us were starting to stumble. Our trekking poles had already saved us from falling several times. We were both feeling ready for that loop to end. Finally we heard the sound of cheering and a drum being played at the aid station by one of the volunteers and knew we were close. We stopped there and refilled my husband’s pack with water and he ate some peanut butter tortilla wraps that he said were delicious. Funny how good food can taste when you’re trailrunning!
We were excited to go back down the trail we had came up on, but it was not easy going. The fast runners from the 50k race began to pass us going down and the slower 50k runners were coming up the narrow trail which meant that we stopped frequently and stepped to the side. I was having trouble with my left foot, stumbling a lot, which was making me anxious, and my husband had a painful blister on his toe, so we were both not in the best mood at that time. Then we passed an injured woman who was waiting for the medics to come carry her off the mountain and we realized that things could be worse! A few minutes later, the medic team went by. We were both relieved to reach the bottom of the trail. My husband stopped to check his blister and discovered he had more than one and the one on his toe had already popped. There was nothing to do but keep going. Meanwhile I went to pee in some bushes. During that short break another back of the pack guy almost passed us. We hurried up and got moving again, went under the bridge and back up the road into the park and then onto the next trail.
Indian Lodge trail
My husband’s only real goal for the race was to finish, but he also said that he’d be very happy if he could finish in under 5 hours. Both of us have a competitive streak and neither wanted to come in last! He has a history of go-kart racing, drag racing, and motorcycle racing and enjoys giving a race a good effort. Since the 50k had taken me over 9 hours both times I’d run it, I knew this 25k would take us a long time, but I was trying to get him there in under 5. We still had about 2.5 miles to go and that included a very steep climb and rocky descent. I had been nervous about this trail ever since we signed up and waiting for it all day! It was on this trail that my husband reached his longest distance ever run, when he passed the 13.1 mark. After that point the thought crossed his mind that maybe he would just stop there because he was having a low point and had blisters! But thankfully, he kept trudging along. I gave him a pure Maple syrup packet and that really perked him up once it got into his blood. But the climb was very steep and his heart was racing and he was even feeling dizzy, so we took it slow until we made it to the top. I was praying hard the whole time. Faster runners were passing us but even those speedsters were slowed a little by the technical trail. This trail that had terrified me the first year was not even hard for me this time, I was so focused on my husband. I would move forward a little, then stop and give him time to get almost to me, then move again. There was not much talking going on other than me telling him to take his time and catch his breath and watch his step.
The end is near
With great relief , I watched him make it up and over the top edge of the mountain. We knew after that we only had about a mile or so to go! No turning back now. The trail along the top of this small mountain was still fairly technical and we were not going fast. I wanted to push him a little because I knew we had a chance to make sub 5 hours, but I didn’t want to cause him to fall, so I just kept moving and pulling him along. You could see and hear the finish line way before you could get to it, and that motivated us to move as fast as we safely could, while allowing the faster runners to pass. As we got closer to the bottom, we met a woman who was going even slower than us on the steep, rocky, uneven trail. She was afraid of falling, so we gave her encouragement, then passed her and kept going down. By this point we were both excited and eager to be done. The trail ended and we ran a short way across a parking lot then down a small hill to a drive way and through the finish line holding hands ! Official time 5:01. We had done it!
Our finisher awards were Sky Island logo trucker hats that were handed to us as soon as we crossed the line. We were both a bit overwhelmed at the cheering crowd and feeling like, now what do we do? The race had been a very intense experience emotionally and physically. After speaking to a few people who were very happy for us, we decided to head over to our lodge room, which was so convenient, take a few moments to process what just happened, take a shower and rest a bit. First I took a quick photo of my husband.
Later we had a delicious lunch at the lodge restaurant of Angus beef patties with grilled onions, bacon , and fried eggs on top. Plus french fries. Then my husband rested in the room with the kids, who had been watching TV the whole time we were running, and I went and hung out with some friends by the pool and had a celebratory beer. It was a great day all around! The following day I was able to take my sons on a hike on the Indian Lodge trail, which made me very happy. They aren’t really into hiking, but I just had to show it to them! Then we went for a lovely scenic drive through the mountains and to visit the unique town of Marfa. We also had plenty of time to talk about and relive the highs and lows of the race.
I want to give God all the glory for bringing us across the finish line happily and successfully, as well as getting us safely to the race and having a wonderful 4 day vacation in the Davis Mountains. I believe that He answered prayer after prayer during the months of training and the race itself. Everything could not have gone better, except for the blisters. 🙂 We have talked about different races we might want to run in the future, but for now we are just enjoying the good memories.