Sunday, February 3, 2008

Singing Delilah at Rocky Raccoon

5 years ago I couldn't run a 10k without walking. Yesterday I ran my first 50 mile race at a faster pace than I ran those old 10ks. If you would have told this chubby little Welsh boy five years ago that he would run a 50 mile race I would have laughed all the way to Mr Gatti's.

Our weekend started on Friday as Nancy, Gavin and myself had a relaxed drive up to Huntsville. We got to the park mid afternoon for packet pickup and then took Gavin to play on the swings. It was a beautiful day and I was so glad the weather would be good for my peeps. We wandered around for a while and then left to check into the hotel. Nancy wanted me to wear the Rocky Raccoon sweatshirt, but I have this thing about not wearing the shirt until I run the race so I left it in the bag. We had supper at a funky little place called the Potato Shack, finished it off with a nice piece of turtle cheesecake (helps me sleep - ha ha) and then we headed back to the hotel. Spent some time re-reading bits of "Running through the Wall" for motivation, then we had an early night.

I've always been nervous before my marathons, but for some reason I've not had the same nerves for either of the trail races I've run. Instead I was excited at the challenge of the unknown. We got to the park just after the 100 milers had set off and I could see the procession of lights as they made their way into the trails. A few days before this race, I'd signed up for a 50k in Fort Worth in July called "El Scorcho", and as I waited at the start line I spotted a guy wearing an "El Scorcho" shirt. Got talking to him and it turns out he was Ryan Valdez - the El Scorcho race director. What are the chances?

Pretty soon we were off. I wore my Round Rock Fit shirt and as we wound around the course I got a lot of banter about the "no whining" logo. On the way up to the Far Side aid station, I caught a glimpse of Jorge Pacheco coming the other way - he was flying and would go on to win the 100 mile race. On the way back from Far Side, I saw the first fall of the day - an acrobatic 360 that left the guy flat on his back. Fortunately it looked a lot more spectacular than it was painful as he got up and seemed ok. A few minutes later I heard a voice scream "get out of my way" and a runner came streaking past me at a full-on sprint. He kept yelling as he pushed past the group in front of me. Well, there's always one, and I figured I would be passing him long before the day was out. Sure enough, not a mile later he was flat out by the side of the trail looking thoroughly done in. Didn't see him again. A short while later I came across a guy running in a coonskin cap whose name really was Davy Crockett!!! I would continue to meet entertaining characters throughout the day.

Coming up toward the swamp I lost concentration for a moment and turned my ankle on a hidden rock. I gingerly put my weight on it, and limped for a short while before getting back to a slow jog and then finally my normal run. I'm a world expert on ankle sprains (my own at least) from my rugby days, and I knew I could run it off. It wasn't a factor for the rest of the race, but by the next day it had swollen up like the proverbial fatted calf.

I got back to the lodge in around 2:39 and saw Nancy and Gavin - they'd set up a "shark tent" and were obviously having a great time. I stopped off at the porta potties and then at my drop bag. Dumped off my long sleeved shirt and gloves, replenished my e-gel and shot bloks, picked up my ipod and headed out again around 2:44.

Felt pretty good for most of the second loop. Went through the dam road aid station, the out and back from far side, and cruised through the marathon distance in 4:23. Coming up on to the dam road, the ipod started playing a bunch of great songs. Every one reminded me of a time and place - Chantilly Lace, Tom Jones' "Delilah", Kirsty McCall's "Days", and Pulp's "Common People" amongst others. I was pretty much by myself on the trail, so I started singing along. Grooved along for a while, singing loudly, waving my arms around like a lunatic and having a great time while sneaking the odd furtive glance behind to make sure nobody could hear my awful singing. If you saw me, or heard me at any point during this part of the course, please keep it to yourself!!! "WHY, WHY, WHY, DELILAH" I howled as the coyotes covered their ears and the alligators sought refuge at the bottom of the lake. However, the high didn't last, and by the time I closed in on site 174 my right knee had started giving me problems and slowed me down. I'd been having some IT band issues for the last month or so and hoped it would settle down, but by the time I got back to the lodge I knew I was in trouble.

I completed loop 2 right at 5:50 and stopped off at my drop bag again to get some double shot espresso clif shots and sports beans and drop off the ipod. I wanted to get back out quickly before my knee seized up, but knew it may already be too late. Nancy and Gavin came over and I didn't want to worry them, so I told them I was tired and this might be a long last loop. I took off again, but it was very painful to run so I decided to walk for a bit and see if it would ease. From time to time I would try running again, but the knee was crying Mary so I resolved to continue at a fast walk. I also knew that if I had to drag my sorry ass the whole way around that course I would. Then, not far from Far Side, something clicked back into place and the knee pain was suddenly gone. I got into the aid station, refilled my bottles and took off at a brisk run to test the knee out. It felt good, so I decided to try and make up for lost time. The walk break had left me feeling really fresh so I started pushing the pace and pretty soon started passing a lot of people. Came back through the dam road aid station, filled up quickly and took off again. Coming back up through the wilderness I started feeling really good, and by the time I got to site 174 I was flying. Chugged the double espresso shot and headed out of the final aid station and into the biggest runner's high I've ever had - those last 3 miles were my best of the entire run. I felt so good and covered them in under 24 minutes. I kept pushing the pace and the faster I went the better I felt. I popped out of the woods a mile from the finish line and decided to really drop the hammer. Took a look at my Garmin and saw I was running close to a 7 minute mile. What am I doing running a 7 minute mile after 49 miles? Hell, it felt good so I went with it and picked up the pace again. Motored through the final part of the trail and onto the approach to the lodge, where several spectators started clapping me in. I did my airplane impersonation as I crossed the finish line feeling really strong in 9:24 - over 35 minutes faster than my goal time.

Crossed over to the shark tent where both Gavin and Nancy were asleep. Nancy was shocked to see me as she didn't expect me for another half hour at least. I was still coming down after my high and had a permanent goofy grin on my face. We stayed around for a while cheering on some of the other runners, and it was dark by the time we left. As we drove out of the park I could see the headlights of some of the 100 mile runners in the woods. I really felt for those guys who would be running all night - maybe next year I will be one of them.

My fueling strategy had worked really well, but I started to get really hungry and raided McDonalds on the way home to Austin. Large fries, big mac, double cheeseburger (can't beat fats for those fast calories), then I emptied a packet of trail mix, then made a pile of bacon sandwiches once I got home. Couldn't sleep last night, so I got up around 2am, made some more and watched tv most of the night. Then I was ready for breakfast.

Overall, I had a great time despite the knee problems. The fact that I came back strong at the end and finished well under my time goal bodes well for longer distances. I have to say I really love the atmosphere and feel of these trail runs. The volunteers can't do enough for you and everyone is so friendly. Surprisingly, I'm not feeling that stiff today. My ankle is swollen from that silly altercation early on in loop one, my knee is a little sore and my feet are bruised but I'll be ready to go again in a few days. It's time to repair and get ready for the Austin marathon in two weeks time. Ice is my friend!!!

Signing out from the strange world of ultra running.

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