Thursday, February 7, 2013

2013 Rocky Raccoon Race Report

In 2012 I spent almost 28 hours on the trails at Huntsville State Park trying to figure out the Rocky Raccoon 100. Getting a buckle means you conquered the race on that particular day, but I certainly did not feel like I had figured out that race, that distance, the challenge of running 100 miles. With all the lessons I thought I had learned in 2012, I was back again in 2013 to give it another shot.

This year I flew out with my friend John, who was also running, and our crew of John's wife Katie and our friend Martin. My parents who live in Houston would also travel up to be part of the crew. The decision to fly from Birmingham instead of drive like we did last year was clutch. We rented an RV and set up camp in the state park Thursday afternoon. Friday would be a nice relaxing day.

Camping in style
My goal for the race was obviously to finish, but I was certainly shooting to break that 24 hour mark. I knew with foot care lessons and salt intake lessons learned at last year's Rocky Raccoon mudfest, I should be better prepared and sub 24 was at least a reasonable goal. I decided that I would run without a pacer this year so that I'd have a back up goal of just finishing the race all by myself if that sub 24 goal eluded me.

Before the race.
Race morning I was delighted to wake up to no rain and a nice temperature right around 50 degrees. Great running weather although I was a little concerned about the heat of the day, but I'd deal with that later. Last year John and I started in the middle of the pack and we found the first several miles very slow as a result. We decided this year to run up front and we were probably running in the top 20-30 runners for the first few miles. The feet were light, my headlamp was bright, everything felt good and right.

Somewhere after DamNation I decided I needed to dial back the pace a little bit and started to walk the hills of that DamNation loop. I started to get passed a lot, and at some point John caught back up to me and it was good to talk and strategize a bit. The consensus was that we were on a pace that was too fast, but neither of us felt concerned enough to really slow down. We don't have very similar running styles so we didn't really run the rest of the loop together. My first loop goal was 3:45, I came in at 3:24 just about a minute or so ahead of John.

Two really happy runners
At the start of this second loop I knew I was just three miles from getting my first real attention from the crew. John and I came into the Nature Center aid station together and promptly plopped down in chairs while our crew asked us what we needed. I didn't need much except some lube for the feet. I was hell bent on keeping blisters from being a problem. I probably drank an Ensure, but didn't really need much else. I left the headlamp and arm sleeves behind and took off.

John and I ran together for a little bit after this, but as the temperature started to rise, I knew I needed to be very cautious of my pace. I think I told John I was hoping to do this loop between 4:30 - 5 hours. He was going to go faster, so I let him run ahead. The second loop was really uneventful. I think a lot of folks were passing me, but I was more concerned about saving my legs and my body after a faster first loop than I had planned.

23 Miles, Get me some lube!
It turns out my goal of running a sub 5 hour loop would be no issue. I came back into the start at Dogwood at 4:11 hours and was feeling really good and strong. The temperature had started to rise even more and I knew at this point I needed to try to slow down even more.

I wish I could say things got tough during this loop, but I was so focused on dialing things back that I just kept it easy, tried to eat and drink, and upped my salt pill intake to three pills an hour to account for the extra heat. Again my crew was great at mile 43. I felt a little rubbing on a toe and my heel so I changed from my new Pearl Izumi N1's to the trusted Saucony Peregrine 2's. The crew told me John was looking and feeling good as I took down part of an Arby's roast beef sandwich. I told my crew the goal was something close to 5 hours and then I was gone.

43 Miles, looking a little bloated. Best Crew Ever!
This loop was probably the most challenging for me. It felt hot. My legs were starting to hurt, but nothing was keeping me from running. I ran the downhills and some of the flats. When I wasn't running I was doing a fast walk. I'd check my watch at certain points of the course and while I was definitely moving slower, the pace was still pretty close to previous laps. As the sun began to set I began to pick up the pace a little. I grabbed my headlamp from the crew at the Park Road aid station at mile 57 and headed back to Dogwood to finish off the loop. I managed to get it done in 4:28, so far better than 5 hours and at 12:06 total for the race.

Runners are allowed to get pacers starting at mile 60, but this year I decided to attempt the race with no pacer. I felt the challenge of finishing it by myself would be good for me. Now with the temperature dropping and my headlamp turned on I began to pick the pace up a bit. That is probably all relative to what your body can do. It felt like I was running a lot faster, but in reality, it was probably about the same. I remembered to pickup my iPod at the Nature Center and after a trip to the bathroom and an Ensure I was back to the trail. I knew John was ahead of me with his wife and pacer Katie and with the speed I was running I felt like I would catch them at some point. Out of the DamNation aid station I was running really hard since my iPod seemed to be randomly giving me a perfect running playlist. The temperature continued to drop, but I was sweating so staying warm was not an issue. Midway through the DamNation loop I came across John and Katie. I stayed with them briefly, but since our running styles differ I ended up running ahead after a few moments.

As I came into DamNation a few miles later I reminisced to how much different this year was from last year. In 2012 I was sitting at DamNation at mile 72 with a serious lack of salt problem and horrible blisters wondering if my race was over. This year, I grabbed some fluids, fresh headlamp batteries and I was headed to Park Road.

The Jeep road that leads to the Park Road aid station is my least favorite part of the course. If you know me you know I hate onions, chicks who wear too much make up, and jeep roads. Luckily, by now I had figured out that if I ran the downhills and some of the flats, I could knock this section out in about 25 minutes. I think my parents were surprised to see me at Park Road since I was well ahead of pace. I was moving faster on this loop than I did on loop three. I never stayed long at this aid station except for the time I used the porta john but I can't remember which loop or loops that was.

The next 4.4 miles to Dogwood was pretty easy. I was comforted by knowing at this point I had assured myself a sub 24 hour finish since I would have more than 7 hours to finish the final loop and I had just done the 4th loop in 4:19.

Out for the final loop I saw John almost immediately. He was probably about a half mile from finishing his loop and was happy to hear how close he was. I told myself that I was going to back the pace down and just make sure I could get a nice safe finish. There was no need to break an ankle now and DNF. I got my final Ensure at mile 83 and joked around with my crew some. I think they were remarkably surprised with not only the pace, but my upbeat spirits. Katie had dropped off from pacing John and was there to give me an update on him. He was doing really well and had Martin to bring him home for his final loop. How is it that we were both having such amazing races after the disaster of 2012?

I had time check points for each loop that gave me an idea of where I was and what the pace looked like. At DamNation I knew I was on a similar pace as I had been most of the day so I began to think of possibly finishing under 21 hours. Perhaps it was my excitement of the math or deliriousness of being at mile 86, but I made my first mistake here. I did not listen to my body and ignored the queasy stomach and did not take the antacids in my drop bag.

The next six miles were the worst of the race. I'd run but only to feel like I was about to throw up. I could usually only manage a minute or so of running before I was slowed to a walk by the feeling of sickness. I kept it steady and when I got back to DamNation it was straight to the drop bag for antacids. I thanked the aid station volunteers for a great job again this year and I was gone for the final eight miles.

Antacids seem to work almost immediately. Within a half mile I was back to feeling good and running more than I was walking. I found that I was passing a lot of runners; runners who had looked to be faster than me earlier in the day. My dad told me I ended up improving 17 places on the final loop. This really pushed me to keep going faster and faster. As I flew into the Park Road aid station my parents greeted me with smiles and applause. I was short with them, explaining that I was going to try to break 21 hours.

At this point I was not only racing the 21 hour mark, but my head lamp batteries. I noticed that it was getting dimmer and dimmer over the past few miles and that potentially it could die before the finish. The solution was to just run faster. This became a challenge once the trail dumped back onto the root filled single track for the last three miles. Somehow, I made no bad steps, I realized here that I was likely to break 21 hours, but if I hustle, I could also do this loop in less than 4:30.

When you get to the bridges you know you are close. I was there, but my light was so dim. In an effort to save batteries I would switch off my headlamp on the bridges since I knew the footing was good. Did this help? Probably not, but I did it on three of the longer bridges.

For the final mile or so you can see the main park road. There is one small climb and then you cross three roads on the way to the finisher chute. I think I ran this whole section and I think I ran it pretty fast. As you turn the corner to see the finish line there is an overwhelming sense of joy, pride and accomplishment. This ain't supposed to be easy and while it was much easier this year, it wasn't easy. I had managed to surpass all of my goals and expectations. My parents were standing at the finish line as I crossed at 20:54:35. The final loop was 4:29 and I finished 29th overall. They weren't sure it was me at first since I had done the last 4.4 mile section in maybe less than an hour. I hugged them and smiled bigger than I have in a long time. Joyce gave me my sub 24 hour buckle and I found a chair to sit down in. John would finish an hour later going sub 22 hours and turning in a race that surpassed his expectations as well.

An incredible team with lots of reason to smile
I have only done two 100 milers, both at Rocky Raccoon. I'd tell you I know what to expect now, but I certainly didn't expect the race I had this year. I think what I know now is that you can train, prepare, have a plan, have a crew, have all of that stuff, but when you hit the trail you just never know what is going to happen.

Huge thanks to Joe and Joyce and the whole Rocky Raccoon team. They put on a hell of a race. My crew and support team is incredible. It makes a huge difference just knowing you have people there, and they are there for you. Seeing that smile, hearing the applause, it all keeps you going. I'm lucky and blessed to have people that want to share these crazy adventures.


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