"This year Joe made significant changes to the course and, while the general terrain was still the same as in the past, the course contained far fewer dirt road sections and far more rooted, winding, sandy, single-track trail sections. From my perspective and for a runner of my ability I felt this added about 10-15 minutes per loop over the previous course."
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Rocky Raccoon 100 was not even close to being on the radar screen as a race option for 2009. It wasn't until my friend Wayne Bates made the suggestion that I started to seriously think about it, and when Coach Lisa Smith-Batchen noted that it would be great training for a possible run at Badwater, I was fully committed. Somewhere along the way the decision was made to push for a sub-24 hour finish, a goal that I had originally set for the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run in April. What follows is a recap of my journey through Huntsville State Park and the quest for a sub-24 hour finish. In might offer some insight into what it takes to run a sub-24 hour 100 miler, and it certainly will reveal various mistakes and pitfalls that one may go through in such an attempt.
The Course - The Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Endurance Trial Run utilizes single track trails and jeep roads in Huntsville State Park (five 20-mile loops). The course has minimal elevation gain, but does roll a bit. A vast majority of the course rides on a bed of pine needles and dirt. Most of the single track is covered with roots. In fact, this year's winner, Andy Jones-Wilkins stated in his "2009 Rocky Raccoon 100 Race Report" as follows :
Women's champion Jamie Donaldson (3rd overall) would comment in her "Rocky Raccoon Race Report" that "those roots really hid and then jumped out at the wrong times....I was getting tired, so I wasn't picking up my feet like I should....Every little root that you could imagine, I would trip on and fall on the ground." For me, running the rooty single track trails at night would prove to be a huge obstacle to a sub-24 hour finish and cause a strain of my right medial collateral ligament.
Travel & Pre-Race - Wayne and I took a flight together from New York to Houston early Friday morning. I was fortunate enough to have Rick Gaston come from San Francisco to pace me over the last 40 miles of the race (he had paced me to a successful finish at Javelina Jundred 100 back in November of 2008). His generosity and selflessness is truly remarkable. Rick would arrive 2 hours later, so we used this time to grab a bite to eat and pick up some supplies that we would need on race day. With our group assembled, we headed straight for packet pickup to meet up with Kira (the final piece of our 4 person hotel room puzzle). Kira ran the 2008 Rocky Raccoon 100 in 21:28:09 and set her sights on a sub-20 hour finish in 2009. Unfortunately, stomach issues from the get-go would severely limit her ability to move throughout the day. We also spent some time catching up with old friends, including : Sergio Robles Trevino from Mexico, who I had first met at the Grand Tetons 100 Mile Race in September (he would end up running a perfect, and I really mean perfect, race, starting out slow and steady and finishing strong in 23:47:26); Adam Gifford, also known as "The Professor" on the popular on-line running community Kickrunners (he would set a new 100-mile PR with a 25:10:06 finish); Mark Smith, a Texas native who I have come to know very well over the last year and who's 9:50:41 PR performance in the 50-mile event was stellar; and Tammy Massie, an amazing person who not only ran the 50-mile in 10:26:09, but also spend a significant amount of time thereafter volunteering for the 100-mile event.
A quick dinner with Rick, Wayne, Kira, Sergio and his lovely wife, and Mark and his son Zach was followed by some serious humor back at the hotel room. Kira always keeps things lively and fun, and this trip was no exception. From the moment she pulled out her cold laser treatment device (that looked to me more like a certain magic wand type instrument) the laughs were flowing. That thing constantly beeped like a semi-truck in reverse. We would even raise Bob Gentile on the speaker phone for some additional comedy. Everyone's sprits were high. No one seemed to be suffering from a case of the nerves. My pre-race evening was even more relaxing than my prior 100-milers. I usually spend a good deal of time working on taping my feet. Since I decided to go with Drymax Socks alone for this 100-miler, a decision that would completely pay off, I found myself with plenty of time to kick back and rest.
Saturday began with a 4:00 AM wake-up call. We ate, put the finishing touches on our pre-race preparations, and were off to the start. It was dark out and difficult to find people with all of the blinding head lamps. I was able to run into Jamie and her husband David. They were very supportive of my sub-24 hour goal and offered a bit of advice. 24:50 was Jamie's prediction for me. She looked ready to go herself, and it is no surprise that she crushed the women's field in route to a 3rd overall finish in 16:51:36. I also ran into Jonathan Gunderson, an exceptional runner from California who has several Badwater finishes under his belt. Gundy would finish 18th overall in a time of 20:14:02. With little fanfare, the race was on.
Loop 1 (0 to 20 Miles) - My strategy was to go out slow. Initially, the early morning darkness helped hold back the excitement of the day. However, as the sun began to rise, so did my heart rate. I had started the race with Wayne and Sergio, but lost them shortly after reaching the first aid station (at 3.10 miles). I would make an early mistake by running many of the hills, spending most of my time alone but occasionally hooking up with a runner or two. It was quite amazing to see how many first time 100-milers were running RR100, and even more amazing to see them pushing the pace early on. Midway through the first loop I clearly recognized that I was holding a pace that was far above where I should be, and that resulted in a time for the first loop of about 3:36. The goal was to come in somewhere between 3:50 and 4:00. Rick met me about 100 yards from the end of the first loop and immediately reminded me to watch my pace. Food and fluids were not an issue for the first 20 miles. I was living on Gatorade, Cliff Shot Bloks and Gu Roctane (taking 1 every 2 hours) and trying to keep my caloric intake at about 230 an hour. I did not eat any real solid foods during the first loop.
Loop 2 (20 to 40 Miles) - The temperatures started to rise midway through the second loop. Ultimately they would reach into the 80s. Still, I seemed to keep a pace that was a bit on the fast side, despite knowing that I had to compensate for a fast first loop. A sub-24 hour finish requires an overall pace of 14:23, and I was well ahead of that. I really had no business in doing the first loop at a 10:48 pace, and with the heat beginning to rear its ugly head, I would end up paying for it. At some point a guy named Richard Cullen from Texas and a girl (I forget her name) would catch me from behind. Richard was a triathlete running his first 100-mile race. I stuck with them for a while until they pulled ahead of me, but doing so didn't help to reduce my overall pace. The second loop ended up being more of what the first loop should have looked like, taking about 3:58 to finish. That put my overall time at 40 miles at about 7:34. I had continued with the Gatorade, Cliff Shot Blocks and Gu Roctane plan, although the Shot Bloks would not go down as smoothly as they did the prior loop.
Loop 3 (40 to 60 Miles) - This loop had to be used to compensate for an overly ambitious first 2 loops. In fact, with the mid-day heat taking its toll, much of this loop consisted of short bursts of running and long bouts of walking. The walking pace was, however, quite brisk. I would do the math at each aid station, and it was translating into about a 15 minute per mile pace, and if I could keep that up (which I of course could not) my time would be in the 22 hour range. Physically I felt good. Food was going down well. I had switched over to some solid foods at the aid stations. A few PB&Js and some turkey wraps hit the spot. One Succeed S-Cap from the inception of the race also worked well. I spent almost all of this loop alone. What is great about the course is that it contains a few portions of two-way traffic. This allowed me to see Adam, Wayne and Sergio a few times for each loop. Wayne wasn't too far behind (maybe 30 minutes to an hour), and Sergio, although quite a distance back, was plugging along. I ran into Jamie a few times as well. She would always offer support, giving me the "23:50" shout each time. I'll never forget the moment when she actually lapped me (which was on this loop). She put her hand on my left shoulder and told me to go and get it. Andy, in the lead at the time, passed me as well. We exchanged a few words before he tore up the course in front of me, and asked me if I was on pace to reach my sub-24 hour goal. I calculated that I hit the 50-mile mark in about 10 hours, giving me a good 14 to finish the second half. The third loop took about 4:58 to complete, putting my 60-mile time at 12:32. I remember coming in to the start/finish area and seeing Jamie's husband David. We talked briefly about the fact that two 5-hour loops would result in a finish time of 22:30 or so. Every time I saw him he offered assistance. He even filled my water bottle at one of the aid stations. David is one heck of a guy, and even though I don't know him that well, he is one of my favorite people.
Loop 4 (60 to 80 Miles) - I was excited to pick up Rick for the last 40 miles. Given where we were time-wise, and with a possible sub-23 hour finish a possibility, Rick looked to push us early. It was dark now, but a Texas full moon lit up the sky. The hills began to look steeper than they were on the previous 3 loops, and the roots started to jump out at me. I started to tire. Rick would remind me constantly to pick up my feet, but it wasn't happening. Every root found its way to my feet. One caused some big time damage, hyper extending my right knee. Each and every step after that point caused a piercing pain in my right knee, making it not only difficult to run, but difficult to keep up a good hiking pace. Making things worse were our hand-held lights. Rick and I both were using Fenix LD Series flashlights in addition to our head lamps (we had 3 of them), allowing us to get a much better view of the root covered trails. Filled with fresh batteries, all 3 of the lights faded quickly, lasting less then 2 hours. Without the hand-helds we were almost completely unable to run several sections of the course (Rick would have been able to do so, but with my feet dragging I could not without risking further injury to my knee). We crossed paths with Wayne again. He was still moving, but the heat had taken its toll on him. He would say to me in Loop 3 that he would never run Badwater because the 80 degree heat was killing him. I struggled to keep up with Rick as he tried to push me to run. I would ask for more time to walk, give a few feeble attempts at running, and cave to my body's fatigue. My mind was in a tough place. I needed something to get out of it. The 4th loop took 5:14 to complete, far better then I had thought it would be. My overall time at 80 miles was now about 17:46, giving me over 6 hours to complete the last 20 miles and finish sub-24. I had switched over to eating all solid foods, primarily pizza and soups. It wasn't so much my condition that was holding me back, but more so my frustration with my knee and the roots. I was hopeful that the last 20 miles would be a resurrection.
Loop 5 (80 to 100 Miles) - We had an initial fear that we would lose a sub-24 hour finish, knowing that much of the last loop would be spent walking the many root laden sections of the course. The first 6 miles of this loop were abysmal. I was getting to a bad place, and without some motivation I would stay there. Every root I hit hurt terribly, to the point where I would whimper to the point of near tears. Just before reaching the 6 mile mark Rick said something to me that turned the light back on. He said that in the end, even the best of pacers can't overcome a runner that has given up on his or her goal. That ultimately, it is the runner's race and up to runner to go out and get what they want. You simply can't help someone that either doesn't want to be helped, or is unable to accept the help. I knew what I had to do for the last 14 miles. I pulled Rick back and said "look, you get me to that road, you get me to the runnable sections of this course, and I will do whatever you say....if you tell me to run, I will run....if you tell me to walk, I will walk fast....I won't say a word." Not only did that bring life back into me, but it brought life back into Rick who had become terribly frustrated with my ability to move and my willingness to lay it all on the line. Sure, we didn't want to do any more damage to the knee, but at this point, with 14 miles to go, still on my feet, what did I have to lose. So, we moved. We ran. We walked with speed. We navigated the roots and ran as hard as we could on the sections without roots. I kept asking how my pace was...."awesome" he would say. A loop that at one point looked to be a possible 6 hour plus debacle, turned out to be only 20 minutes slower than the last. As we got closer and closer to the finish I became more and more confident in a sub-24 hour time. Then, something fun and rewarding happened. In the distance ahead of us we could hear another runner, grunting and moaning with each and every step. As we passed him, he asked if my name was Tony. It was Richard Cullen, the guy I spent some time with during an earlier loop. He was hurting and merely hoping he'd make it in under 24 hours. Two of his other friends had gone out too fast and crashed to a DNF. He was in that same bad place I had been in just hours ago. With my heart racing, knowing that sub-24 was just 2 miles away, Rick and I could have could have easily run. But we didn't. Instead, we put Richard on our shoulders. We told him to move with us, stay right behind us. I'd look back every now and then to make sure he was with us. When we got to the road to make the final turn to the finish, I gave Richard well deserved congratulations and took off, crossing the finish line in 23 hours 24 minutes and 29 seconds, good enough for a 53rd place finish out of the 239 starters. Race Director Joe Prusaitis was there to hand me my special sub-24 hour belt buckle. It was awesome. A fitting end to an amazing day of ups and downs.
Got it !
The Aftermath - Rick and I decided to wait to see some of our friends finish. We had to change clothes as it got a little cold standing around. Luckily the main aid station tent had a killer heater and some chairs for us to sit in. Rick quickly passed out. I talked a lot with Tammy. Andy came by (all showered and dressed after his victory) to congratulate me on my finish. I finally found Mark and was so happy to hear about his great performance in the 50 mile. One by one runners crossed the finishing line. 17 more would achieve the coveted sub-24 hour finisher buckle (making it 70 total for the race). Sergio would make a tremendous comeback for a sub-24 hour finish. Adam set a new PR, and so did Wayne. After Wayne finished (he was pretty beat up) we headed back to the hotel and cleaned up. A little bit of chafing lead to some screams from the shower. Thanks to Drymax Socks, I was virtually blister free. I only had one tiny blister that looked to be the result of grit and dirt getting into my sock. I had decided to go at this 100-miles without taping my feet and without any lubrication. It sure worked - THANKS DRYMAX !!!
Drymax Trail Running Socks
Wayne opted for a post-race nap. We had a 4 PM flight out of Houston, so there really wasn't much time to nap anyway. Rick and I hit Denny's for a celebratory breakfast, then headed to the awards ceremony where we saw Sergio and his wife and bid farewell to some of the other runners. At the airport we ate again - one of the worst restaurants I've ever been in, both in food quality and service. Actually, the service was just awful. Soon we went our separate ways, hobbling towards our flights. Wayne was moving at a snails pace. It was just too funny. Rick even took some video of him walking through the parking lot. I can't wait to see that. One on the plane it was lights out for me. I slept almost the entire way.
Our arrival in New York brought the best humor of all. Wayne asked if we could wait for all the other passengers to exit the plane before we got off. He didn't want to hold them up, and boy was he moving slow. The last two to leave, Wayne used the seat in front of him to pull himself up, and began to hobble his way off the plane. A stewardess approached him and said "sir, can I get you a wheel chair ?" Classic. Just classic. I started to crack up. Then the stewardess said "don't laugh, some of us are old". HA !!!!! Wayne explained that he had just run 100 miles. I went ahead of Wayne and waited for him at the end of the gate. As he approached, the JetBlue gate person proceeded to again ask Wayne if he needed a wheel chair. This was getting good. Then, at baggage claim, an airport worker noticed Wayne's shoes untied. "Sir, your shoes", he said. I told the guy he'd never be able to bend over to tie them, and explained why. This guy then proceeded to offer to tie Wayne's shoes for him. Too funny !
Overall it was a great weekend. I always love getting together with old friends, and making new ones, and the trip to Texas was no exception. Many congrats to everyone who participated in the 50 and 100 mile races at Rocky Raccoon.