Saturday, February 11, 2012

Rocky Raccoon 100 Race Report

You think you know, but you don't know. The light from my cell phone lit up my face in the dark RV. People who make a living predicting the weather get it wrong damn near half the time; what was my phone going to tell me? Very clearly it told me this: Things were going to be a lot different. We had all come to Texas with expectations, goals and ideas of what we would accomplish. Now we were nervous and unsure.

I have several vices: pizza, good beer, the inability to say no. Last April my friend John started talking about the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Endurance Run. He's a good runner who regularly logs 200 miles a month. I am lucky to get 100 miles a month much less in one race. This was likely over my head. Vices are dangerous.

Races are fun, but adventures are better. My crew of John, Katie and Brad is excellent at creating adventure, and that was the goal of this trip. With camp site reservations, RV reservations and a bag full of too-few socks, we piled into a rental car and set the GPS from Birmingham to Huntsville State Park, Texas.

Not exactly roughin' it
I fully recognize that people come of all maintenance levels, but if you are moderate- to low-maintenance, then camping before a race like this is the way to go. No, an RV is not legitimate camping, but it does allow for some level of comfort and weather protection, which I highly recommend. For our crew Brad had easily packed the most. He is a restless spirit and wants to be prepared for movies in the camper or a hostile zombie attack and he packs accordingly. John and I packed light, and with the exception of the most lavish comforter in all of Alabama, Katie did too. After a stop off in Louisiana Wednesday night, we arrived in Texas Thursday in time to pick up the RV, set up camp and enjoy campsite burgers with just a hint of lighter fluid. A few beers later, it was lights out.

Friday was all about relaxing. We had nowhere to go and nothing to do sans a packet pickup and the race meeting in the afternoon. That is where we first heard from Joe Prusaitis. He is the race director and his resume is far more distinguished than his straight-talking, take-it-or-leave-it, this-is-my-damn-race attitude. There is a reason this is one of--if not the largest—100 milers in the country. The reason is Joe.

Pre-race meeting with Joe
During this meeting the dark clouds moved in. Racers love to fret about things they can't control. Weather fits into that category. The 10-day forecast told us it would be warm, but the closer we got to race day, it started to tell us it would be wet. How wet? We've all run in rain. We thought we could handle it.

That night I met my parents and another Birmingham runner, Wade, for Italian food. Truth be, carbo-loading doesn't mean squat for a 100 miler, but traditions are hard to break and we found a nice little restaurant. We talked about expectations and the forecast and had a great time. We were full, dry, happy and we thought we knew what was going to happen in the morning.

Weather radar at the race start.
I am almost positive the alarm didn't wake me up. It was probably the thunder. John was already awake, and I scurried down from my bed to get ready. Lube, dry socks, lube, dry shorts and headlamp all went on. John got caught in the rain on a bathroom trip and came back soaked strengthening my argument that we should run in as little clothing as possible. Shirtless, we got a ride to the start from Katie and Brad. Then we met Wade and jumped in his car. It was 10 minutes till the race was to start, it was raining, it was dark, we were all nervous and we weren't sure what was going to happen.

Drymax Socks Photo. I need a sponsor.
Nervous excitement is tempered at the beginning because a race like this starts like the line for Space Mountain at Disney World. We were tentatively jogging/walking along the dark trail, snaking back and forth surrounded by runners who all wanted to run faster, but either couldn’t because of people in front of them, or because they are smart enough to know there is no hurry in a race like this. We dodged some large mud puddles, hopped over countless roots and followed the glow of more than 300 hundred headlamps. John, Wade and I were running together, and the trail was easy here. The first three miles had rolling hills and several bridges down by Lake Raven, but nothing that I would call challenging trail.

The course had four aid stations and a total of five stops on every 20 mile loop. The first of these was the Nature Center, just 3.1 miles into the race. As I approached, concern over pace was at the top of my mind. The goal was a first loop under four hours, and that meant faster than a 12-minute pace. According to John and his GPS, we were averaging around 13 minute miles, and sure enough when we hit the Nature Center his distance read 3.1. Not fast enough.

Our crew was waiting here, standing in the rain as the conga line of runners came by. We peeled out of line, and Katie and Brad showed us where they were planning to setup our pop-up tent. This would be their home base for the next day and a half.

Out of the Nature Center, we picked up the pace. For a good few miles we all ran together and passed other runners at will and with ease, but eventually I felt like their pace was too fast, and as the least-trained runner I dropped back. I wondered when I would see them again.

The 3.1 miles from Nature Center to DamNation (a legendary aid station) were hillier than the beginning and also contained easily the muddiest part of the course. Mud is fun if you are a kid or if you are running a short race. On this morning you would have thought it was piping-hot magma sure to burn the soles of our feet. Eventually it did for many of us. Protecting your precious feet is so important to the runners, but eventually it is an exercise in futility and you say, "ahh screw it". As I rolled into DamNation, the darkness was giving way to a gray light, the rain still fell but not with angry fury, rather just an annoying reminder that it was still there and Mother Nature could torment us again.

There was much pre-race debate about what we would need in a drop bag. The course was set up to have two drop bags: one at the race start, and one at DamNation. I had a pair of shoes, a pair of socks, a shirt, batteries, lube, a bag with Aleve and salt pills. It was a relatively small bag compared to most, but it felt adequate. I added my headlamp. With a refuel of the water bottle, I was off for my next six miles.

You visit DamNation twice. It is remote and certainly a welcome site, given the next six miles. This section reminds me of a roller coaster. It starts going up and down for about three miles before it turns around and then snakes back and forth over some rolling hills. With just a few big mud puddles, this is one of the most runnable sections. By this point the runners have spread out nicely and I was running the downhills, walking the hills and doing a mix of both in the flat parts. As we passed 10 miles, it was hard not to think, “90 more to go.” That is a reality you cannot allow yourself to comprehend because it would kill you mentally.

When you get to the dam, you run across and can see back to the lodge on the other side of the lake. This is a tease of where you finish the loop, but also a welcome sign that you are close to a return to DamNation. After another refill, I was on my way.

Those that know me best know I hate several things: mushrooms, onions, smokers and Jeep roads. The trail from DamNation started out on the same single track that we ran to get to DamNation: the muddy, wet single track. Then it dumped out onto a jeep road. One of the veterans I was running with said, “This road gets longer every loop.” He was damn right, and by this point I was starting to hurt. It was only 15 miles in, and I did not think it was going to be like this.

Hurting early, at mile 15
My parents were set up at the Park Road aid station. I wasn't feeling good. but I pretended like I was a total badass. A smile and wave, and I was quickly into the tent where I refueled again, then scarfed down a cheese quesadilla. My plan was to treat this course like a 100-mile buffet, and so far I was.

I had just 4.4 miles to finish the first loop, but I was having doubts. In October I ran a marathon, 50-mile trail run and an Ironman. Those races left my posterior tibial tendon in shambles. Tough, hardheaded or just a moron, I waited until December to get treatment, then January to get the right treatment. Now I could feel it throbbing and my hips tightening up. I passed John and Wade coming out as I was going in to finish my first loop. They looked good. I was faking it, but making it and making it in 3:58.

I quickly grabbed my drop bag and sat down. I was No. 26, so I was on the first tarp. A change of socks, a handful of chewy cookies, two Aleve and I was out for loop two.

Mile 23 and I need a shirt
I thought this would be a pivotal loop. If I could do somewhere around five hours I'd still have a shot to finish, but any thought of a sub 24-hour finish was remote. I expressed my pain and concern at the Nature Center. I told my crew it didn't look good but I still thought I could finish. They gave me an Arby's roast beef sandwich and I was off.

By now the rain had slowed , maybe stopped, and the temperature was dropping. As I hit DamNation, I was muddy, wet and ready for a shirt. I was also making good time. During that six-mile roller coaster loop (perhaps a perfect nickname for not only the physical terrain but also the wild swings of emotions experienced) I was passed by the leaders. First Hal Koerner flew by, then Karl Meltzer. I found out Karl doesn't stop when he pees; he turns to an angle and waddles. Mad skills. Shortly thereafter, last year's winner Ian Sharman came by. I could tell he was not having his best day, and after he passed my I picked up my pace. I followed several yards behind Ian, which even caused him to look over his shoulder when he heard my footsteps. No worries Ian, I'm 20 miles behind you.

On the trip up we listened to a video that made fun of things ultra runners say. "I don't even warm up till 30 miles" was one of my favorites. Today it seemed true. Here I was at mile 28 and I felt great. Now I was bombing this section of the course, passing people left and right because I was coming through right after the leaders, people thought I was in fourth place. It didn't last long, but I had fun while it did and I got a ton of encouragement.

I set expectations pretty low for the second loop. My parents had gone back to the Park Road Aid station to await my arrival at mile 35, hoping that I would just make it there. A huge cheer erupted as I emerged from the woods, and I could tell they were thrilled and proud. I was feeling good, they were feeling good, but I had a long, long way to go and I wasn't sure what to expect.

A great crew can really help a runner out. The emotional and mental boost after seeing them can carry you for miles, and it carried me back to the start with a solid second loop somewhere around 4:40. Now, if I could just keep it up.

I am excited to tell my mom something
Second wind? YEAH!
Spirits remained high when I hit the nature center at mile 43. I had changed shoes and was ready for another roast beef sandwich. A quick chat and I was back on the trail. The course was starting to dry up, but any hope of keeping new shoes and socks dry was silly. I had learned that the fastest way through this section was to follow the flow of water. Yes, it guaranteed a wet foot, but also gave you the best footing. Physics (or at least my physics) said the flow of water would clear away loose mud and sand, leaving you hard-packed sand for your feet.

One more pesky little rain shower doused us, but after that the weather cleared and a north wind began to cool off the course. My pace remained consistent with good speed on the down hills and a fast walk on the flat sections and uphills. By now it was routine, and I knew my pacer awaited me at the end of the loop. I figured this thing was going to happen.

The number of runners I saw was really starting to diminish. It was, after all, more than 10 hours into the race. Many of the 50-milers had finished, and no doubt there were some people who would drop out of the 100 miler. I picked up my headlamp from the drop bag at DamNation and started out to finish the last part of my third loop in the dark. My feet were starting to burn. I had blisters, but only on my left foot.

I am a fast walker. John is not. His short legs give him a short stride and while that seems to be part of his ability to stay injury-free, it makes it quite difficult to walk fast. I caught him just before the Park Road aid station. He was struggling. His feet were worse than mine and any hope of running the rest of the way was unlikely. We came into Park Road together but shortly after he told me to go on, and I did.

One of the coolest things about trail running is that I get to share the course with the elites of the sport. At my mile 58, 98 for Hal Koerner (wow, that makes me sound slow) he came up behind me. Now I was feeling good here, so of course I started running along side him. We chatted briefly and I congratulate him on great race. It was 200 yards of running, but it was some of the coolest 200 yards I had all day.

I came into mile 60 on a "Hal High," and it was another good loop somewhere around 4:45. This is also where I could get my hands on some more lube and get my pacer--if only I could find my pacer. And where was that lady who checked my feet for blisters 20 miles ago? I could find neither. My pace goal for a sub-24 hour finish was to be here at 13 hours. It had been about 13:40 and I started thinking, maybe. Maybe I can go under 24. One more lap like I just did and it would be possible.

After a long stop at the start I took off. No pacer, no problem. The iPod was cranked, the headlamp was on and I knew these trails. I popped out at the Nature Center, where I saw part of my crew, but exclaimed that I had no idea where my pacer was. Brad stepped up and said, “I'm right here.” We argued about where he was supposed to be. I was wrong. You see, it is hard to remember everything in a 100 miler. You get delusional. You forget things. You go crazy.

It was clear that Brad was ready. He may have resembled a member of Navy Seal Team Six more than a trail runner but minus a gun, he had it all. The hydration pack had pockets with pockets inside the pockets and loaded down must have weighed at least 20 pounds. He was eager because remember Brad has a restless spirit and it had been 14-hours since the race started. I took off my iPod, refilled the bottle and with pacer in tow, I knew what was going to happen. Sub-24 hour finish, here I come.

The course was still muddy--really muddy. It was also dark and I was running fast. Brad was a few yards behind me when I heard him yell out in pain. A half mile in Brad said, "I think I broke my ankle." I'm no doctor, but even a delusional, crazy trail runner could see Brad was not being a drama queen. I had no time for this and Brad had enough gear on him to survive till Wednesday. I was on the sub-24 hour train to DamNation. He said he would get back out and I bounded along in the dark without music, but with a clear goal.

I had salt pills in both drop bags. I took some at the beginning--maybe after the first loop, but eventually they became an afterthought. Things I learned at Rocky Raccoon: Salt intake is vital. My stomach had felt weird for a while. I mentioned it to John on the previous loop, but it wasn't till this point that it became a problem. I wanted to puke, but I couldn't. I needed to eat and drink, but my stomach was so damn full. This happened before. In October at the Pine Mountain 50 miler I thought I had heat exhaustion (and maybe I did). This was the same feeling, but it was much colder outside so I was confused. Instead of stopping at DamNation I kept moving. Ultra runners don't always make good decisions. By the nature of what we do as a hobby, you should automatically question our judgment. Walking this six-mile loop would cool me down and set me straight; that is what I thought. The roller coaster got me.

It was well after midnight and I can't say I remember much of this section. It was slow, dark and I was probably stumbling around the trail in a fashion more suited for Bourbon Street than the middle of the woods. I know I sat on a bench. I know someone asked me what was wrong. And I know he said the words "Western States" and "you need salt."

Independence and stubbornness can be positive and negative. For me they had been a real detriment. Finally back at DamNation, I asked for help. and as they have for thousands of trail runners, they came through. Lynn Ballard was the captain of this aid station, and at least at one point he helped me. Maybe it was just him, or maybe there is someone else that looks like him. Maybe everyone looked the same to me by now. I took three salt pills, some food and a chair in their heated tent. Next to me was a girl who was in worse shape. She was dropping for sure. That thought had crept into my head, too. The chair was so nice and on a few occasions, Lynn or someone had to wake me up. Was I asleep for long?

Aid stations are happy to see you, but they are happier to see you go. Their mission is to get you to the next stop on the course. DamNation was hell-bent on kicking me out. I felt like a kid telling his mom that he wanted to sleep five more minutes before getting up for school. My five minutes was up. With someone’s old windbreaker and some black gloves, I was sent back to the trail.

My watch said bad things. The fourth loop was already more than 4 hours old and I still had 8 miles to go. The clock’s bad news was offset by the fact that my stomach was working again. A belly full of food looking for a place to go meant I got gassy quick. I made a brisk walk to Park Road where my parents were absent, no doubt tucked away in a warm hotel bed. A PortAPotty was an equal reward though. It even had toilet paper--two rolls! Life wasn't good, but I was going to make it, at least to mile 80. The fourth loop took me 6:30.

Eighty was a relief. I had plenty of time to do 20 more miles. At mile 40 I tweeted and I wanted to do it again at 80 just to say I was going to finish. If I put it out there then I had to, right? This is when I saw the text from Katie. Her plan was to pace her husband, John, for the last 20, but unfortunately the mud and water had burned his feet up and blisters forced him to drop out. She told me she was waiting three miles down the road, and she was going to pace me home.

Blisters forced a lot of runners out of this race. 2012 had the highest DNF rate that I could find of any of the previous 20 years. My left foot was blistered badly and I had adjusted how I was walking: back on the heel of my left and a forward roll on the right. Not a pretty motion, but a forward motion.

Katie and I are ready for some quality time
The Nature Center at mile 83 was weird. John was in normal clothes. Brad was back in the camper in a splint, sleeping. John told me Wade was about an hour up the trail. Apparently, when he came through he and John had a conversation that ended with Wade saying, "I haven't seen John or Kyle in a long time." John says, "Wade, I am John and you've been talking to me."

Things get weird on the last loop. You think you know, but you have no clue. I was better than most, or at least Katie tells me I was. We actually passed a lot of runners here. My quick walk was fast enough that Katie had to jog at times. She was moving quick enough that she needed to take off her jacket. That made me feel good.

I think I’m tough and stubborn, but I have a very worthy adversary in Katie. The youngest of our group, she is by far the most mature and the glue that keeps our wagon together and rolling forward. She knew her mission tonight was to keep me moving forward and with a mix of motherly concern and positive reinforcement she was saying all the right things.

We stopped at DamNation. I sat down in a chair to change socks. Sitting down is a bad idea. The look on Katie's face when I took off my shoes said a lot. My feet were done. I lubed them again, but they were so blistered and wrinkled that it didn't matter.

The final trip on the roller coaster loop was nice and slow. We talked about a lot, most of which I can't remember. It was good stuff though, like the kind you would have with your friend on a long road trip. She wants to hike the Appalachian Trail but thinks she needs a trail name. "Stumpy" it is. I suggested if we go fast and pass people I'll be "Anya Left," but everyone will think I'm a girl.

After four loops you think you know the trail pretty well. I was not a good trail guide. I was convinced the dam was right around the corner, but I was wrong at least three times. When I finally saw it, oh what a relief it was.

The last time through DamNation was quick. A hot dog in a tortilla, a refill and goodbye. I felt like I should really thank those guys for saving my race, but I was upright, mobile and headed to the finish, and they had bigger problems than me to worry about.

The sun started to rise when I hit mile 94. Dawn brought out the crazy in me. The pace had slowed and I was seeing runners. They weren't really there. Ghosts of Rocky Raccoon past, but none of them were on the trail. All off stretching, or peeing or lying down. It was like Field of Dreams, where they couldn't cross over onto the actual trail. This only lasted about half a mile. It was on a jeep road--I'm telling you, those things are evil.

Katie busted out her phone to give my parents a heads up that I was coming up on Park Road. They wanted to meet me there. I was surprised to see how many other people were texting Katie looking for updates from the trail. It meant a lot to see how many people were up at 7 a.m. on a Sunday and checking up on me. Pretty damn cool.

At Park Road, I gave my parents a hug. My dad offered to do the last 4.4 miles with us and I was thrilled to have him. I told him it wouldn’t be fast. He is not a runner, but I don't think he was worried. By this point I was mentally and physically done. Both feet were blistered to hell. I was tired and ready to be done. Runners began flying by me in the last three miles. They weren't moving fast at all, I was just that slow.

When you see the road, that is when you know. The emotions start to creep in and you have to fight back tears. That is when all those painful steps, delirious hours, missing minutes, all of it is worth it. To share that with Katie and my dad was special. I was ready to finish, but I'm not sure I wanted that feeling to go away. If I could stay at 99.7 forever that would be fine with me. At the final road crossing you can see the finish. I stopped and hugged Katie. She truly was the MVP of the trip and doesn't deserve a belt buckle but a crown.
We can see the finish

It is barely more than a walk
The finishing chute itself is not very exciting. It is plain, which is perfect. It’s soaking in the feeling, looking at the people waiting and smiling. I told my Dad I was going to try to run the last few hundred yards. It wasn't a pretty run, but we did it together side by side, all the way across the line. 27:43:53

The buckle is the first thing they give you. Not two feet over the line, it’s firmly in your hands, where you grip it tight like a rope over a ravine. Hugs, pictures and congratulations all seemed to happen rather quickly, and within a few moments it went away. The feeling from 99.7 on is gone. Now you are tired, and the longer you sit the stiffer you get. Bed sounds good, but can you sleep with your legs hurting this badly? Eventually, yes you can.

This was my first 100-mile race, and by all accounts this is one of the easier ones. To me, on this day, it wasn't easy. That said, I have plans to be back in Huntsville next year. Joe and the crew do a fabulous job, and I completely understand why this is one of the most popular races in the world. Huge thanks to my parents and crew. I could not have done it without them.

My first belt buckle
I learned a lot of lessons on the trails this year. You cannot have enough socks. Be prepared for blisters. Read up on how to treat and prevent blisters. I had blisters in places I don't get blisters. Nutrition can end it for you quick. I'll be monitoring my salt much better next time. Drop bags are good, but the plastic bins with trays where you can organize things are better. With these lessons I figure I'll be able to do much better next time. Now I think I know, but I probably still have no idea.


  1. Special K, thanks for sharing your adventure with people. I'm amazed at how committed you are to running and fitness. I'm thinking you should think about blogging seriously about running. Have you ever pitched your insights on running to a magazine like Men's Health or Men's Journal? You can take your writing out of mothballs. Give this idea some thought, OK?

    Also, what else is new with you? It's been forever since you and I talked.

  2. epic, my friend. definitely epic. when is the next grand adventure? :o)

  3. Kyle, huge respect for slogging it out in that muck last weekend. I firmly believe that the mud and chill drastically changed things for pretty much everyone out there. Those that were able to overcome and push through the doubts crossed the line. Cheers to you.

  4. Wow! Kyle!!!! Having read your account of the run, I am speechless! #1: You are amazing...and I am NOT surprised to know that! You were one cool kid.....I see you have not lost that!..Great story....great parents....great GUY!!!
    Best to you!
    Vicki Custer (Cat Stevens fan!)

  5. Awesome race report! I love that you finished with your dad. I got all teary eyed!