Monday, February 9, 2009

Highs and Lows at the Rocky Raccoon 100

Deep in the heart of the East Texas Piney woods the 100 mile beast stirred. It raised its head and looked around. As the day heated up it roared.

Clea picked me up Friday afternoon and we had a relaxing drive down to Huntsville. We got to the park mid afternoon and picked up our packets - the 100 mile fleece is really nice and extra motivation for me to finish the race (if I don't finish a race I won't wear the shirt). We met up with Derek and John and had a relaxing supper at the quaint and historic Homestead cabin. I taped my feet well before turning in for the night - it had worked for me at Bandera and I hoped it would see me through 100 miles.

Superstitious me, I wouldn't tell anyone my time goal in advance, so before I left home on Friday I wrote it down and sealed it into an envelope for Nancy to find. I also wrote another one and popped it into my drop bag. My time goal was 21 hours and 30 minutes - ambitious but not unachievable. Other than that I wanted to finish under 24 hours and earn the sub-24 hour finisher's buckle.

The Rocky Raccoon 100 miler consists of five 20 mile loops and my race plan was to run as follows:
loop 1 - 3:30
loop 2 - 4:00
loop 3 - 4:30
loop 4 - 4:30
loop 5 - 5:00

I knew that the warm temperatures (it was the hottest in the race's history) were going to be a factor so I decided to go for a fast first loop and get some miles in the bank early so I could back off in the heat of the afternoon. I knew that policy could backfire on me, but I decided it was the best plan so I went 100% with it.

At 6am I fitted my headlamp, we all lined up and with a simple "go" from Joe, we were off into the woods. As it got light I spotted Lorenzo Sanchez, a really nice guy from San Antonio who I'd run into at Bandera. We fell in and ran together for a few miles, shooting the breeze. Not long after coming out of the Dam Road aid station I came across Clea and Derek who were running the 50 miler. I liked the two-way portions of this race best because you got to see your friends and got a lot of encouragement from fellow runners.

I finished up the first loop in 3:20 and took the opportunity to visit the porta-potty before it got too disgusting. Race director Joe gave me a high five and a few words of advice (take it one loop at a time) as I headed out again. I ran with Meredith for a few minutes somewhere on this loop - she had a great 50 mile run and I think she won the women's race. A few miles on I realized there was something wrong - I was feeling a bit lightheaded and fatigued. By the time I hit the farside loop I'd hit a major low and walked most of the loop. This was the longest distance between aid stations (6 miles) and it was neverending. I figured out that my electrolytes were out of balance and I was low on fluids, so when I got back to Dam Road I grabbed my drop bag, chugged some salt caps, dumped some iced water over my head and drank a can of V8 juice (a last minute addition to my drop bag - thanks for the tip Jeff). I started to feel better on the Jeep Road and spent the rest of the loop making up for lost time. I finished out the loop in 4 hours - amazingly still on track. Close to the turnaround I came across Meghan who was waiting to run the last loop with Clea. I was glad to see her and hoped the girls would have a good run.

The third loop was another slog - it had gotten pretty hot out there (upper 70s/low 80s) and I kept pouring iced water over my head to keep cool - it was wonderfully "take your breath away" refreshing. I struggled early on in this loop, but could do nothing except gut it out and wait for nightfall. I wondered if it was the new milkshakes I'd been downing that was causing the funk, so I stopped taking them, switched to solid food and that solved most of the problems.

I was dreading the farside loop, but luckily I met up with another runner from San Antonio - Greg Carlson - and we ran and talked that entire portion which made it go by really quickly. By the time I got to the Park Road aid station I was feeling good again and I hit the final 4.5 miles hard. About 1/4 mile from the turnaround I found Clea and Meghan waiting for me. They were going to go for supper, get some sleep and come back out around 4am to see me finish. Let's just say I was looking forward to seeing them again!!! I checked my watch and was amazed to see that despite all my lows I was still exactly on track and I finished out the loop in 4:40.

It was dusk as I started out on the penultimate loop. A beautiful full moon was rising and I felt transformed. I love running at night and I suddenly felt very much in my element. I kept my headlamp off until it was completely dark and flew around the Triple C trail with reckless abandon. I was a small boy again playing in the woods - I even whooped a few times. I still felt good as I flew around the Chinquapin trail and my mood improved even more when several runners told me that they'd started cooking the hot food at Dam Road. I stopped for some glorious cheese quesadillas, sausage and slices of hamburger patties. I took off for the farside loop and heard someone coming up behind me and calling my name. It was Larry King - he was pacing the guy who would go on to win the race (and was already on his last loop). Larry told me that I was looking fresh and strong, which gave me a big boost. Farside passed without incident (though still neverending), Lynn Ballard refilled my bottles at Dam Road while I grabbed more quesadillas and headed off toward the jeep road. I didn't think I had it in me to make my 21:30 prediction any more, but I really wanted to go sub-22 so I determined to push the rest of the loop to give myself some breathing space for the last 20 miles. I pulled into the Park Road aid station floating on a high to find Meredith there cheering me in. She asked how I was doing and I said I was doing great. I feasted on some vegetarian meatballs, avocado slices and sausage while the volunteers filled my handhelds and headed out again. I pushed the pace for the rest of the loop and finished it out in 4:45.

As I refilled at the start/finish I heard someone else cheering me. I looked around and there was Meredith again. She kept popping up at different aid stations and it was always good to see her. I headed out for the last time needing to run a 5:15 loop to finish under 22 hours.

About a mile into the final loop I rolled my ankle and went down hard. I limped for a few minutes but managed to walk it off. Then about 5 minutes later I did it again - same ankle, down like a sack of spuds, and the toys came out of the pram. I threw my water bottle down, let out a "barbaric yawp" (thanks Ryan) and followed it up with a tirade of yelled curses. I was mostly mad at myself but I looked up to find two ladies who had come around the corner standing there open-mouthed. Whoops. I grinned sheepishly, apologized and limped off. That faux pas did lift my mood (I spent the next hour or so laughing over it), but the falls made me very cautious. Having run 80+ miles I didn't want to risk the finish by doing something stupid, so I slowed down and took it much more carefully. Thankfully I was able to walk this one off too. Over to dam road, around Farside for the last time (thank God), and as I came back onto the levee I came across Ryan and his wife who was pacing him. He was on his fourth loop and was having some major problems but the guy is as tough as nails. I didn't have anything on me to help him, so we just visited for a few minutes. I hope he finished because he really deserves it. I wished him all the best, came down off the levee and made my way back to the dam road aid station at mile 92.

I checked my watch and figured I had 2 hours to run the last 8 miles and bag the sub-22 finish. So I threw caution to the wind and decided to really push those last 8 miles. I still felt good and started running some of the hills, flew up the jeep road and before I knew it I was at the last aid station.

One of the volunteers asked me how I was doing. I replied that I was still smiling and hadn't had any hallucinations. Then I grinned and added, "as long as this really is the aid station". A quick in-and-out and I was 4.5 miles from the finish with 80 minutes to get there and bag a 22 hour finish. I tried to figure out what pace per mile I needed, but my brain wasn't working properly because I kept coming up with a 2 minute/mile pace. In a truly bizarre moment I actually thought I had stumbled across a mathematical paradox, and it took me a few minutes before I realized I was just forgetting to count the zero and it was really a 20 minute/mile pace.

I took it easy for a mile or so to save myself for a fast finish. My legs were still good and I was feeling so much better than earlier in the day, so when I hit the Prarie Branch trail I really picked it up. I checked my watch as I hit Dogwood (about a mile from the finish line) and was shocked to realize I was going to get really close to my time goal after all so I put on the finishing kick. I attacked the uphills, popped out onto the trail that parallels the road and knew the end was close. Then it hit me for the first time - I was about to run 100 miles. I made the last turn, ran down the approach to the finish line and crossed in 21 hours and 35 minutes.

The first people who ran up to congratulate me were Clea and Meghan. Clea snapped the picture on the right and then the girls took over. I didn't have to think about anything - they took my bottles, got my bag, wrapped me up in a blanket, sat me down by the heater and got me some ramen noodles and broth - they were awesome. And yes, it tasted really good. Robert came over and congratulated me on joining the 100 mile club, and Joe gave me the sub-24 hour finisher's belt buckle and shook my hand. He also told me I'd have to come back next year and break 21 hours. As we'd planned on leaving early in the morning, the girls went into action and managed to get the lodge opened up and get my Texas Trilogy award. Since the dam road aid station drop bags weren't coming back until 11am I asked a friend to pick it up.

The girls drove me back to their hotel room so I could shower and change. Let me tell you, I'd been dreaming of a shower for the last 5 hours and it was the best shower I've ever had. I had so much salt on me I could have supplied a entire fish and chip shop. I pulled the tape off my feet and they weren't too bad - certainly no worse than I'd anticipated. You can't expect to run 100 miles with no damage and I think it would have been a lot worse without the tape.

We said goodbye to Meghan and popped into IHOP for some breakfast before getting on the road and heading back to Austin. Nancy and Gavin were waiting for me and it was nice to get home so early - it's amazing to think that we would be back in Austin and some folks would still be out there running. Now that takes some serious determination.

I fell asleep on the couch this afternoon and woke up really stiff. I think I may be doing the "hundred mile hobble" tomorrow.

Things I learned from this race
So much of this game is in your head, and because of the distance involved, the highs and lows are magnified. When you're feeling good you're on top of the world, and when you're going through a rough spot it's a bummer. I made a point of running aid station to aid station - my goal at any one time was the distance between them. Also, whether I was on a high or a low I always believed I was going to finish.

I talked to myself a lot, especially when I was pushing the pace late in the race. That helped to keep me going. I probably looked really crazy muttering to myself though. I don't think I ever felt the need for a pacer and actually enjoyed the peace and solitude of being by myself in the woods at night.

I finished within 5 minutes of my predicted time, which is pretty darn close for a 100 mile race. But how did I get so close? Was it a lucky guess or did I subconsciously set the pace to attain that goal?

Between Sunmart and Rocky Raccoon, I'm all Huntsvilled out. I don't think I want to run here again for a while.

Oh, and if you're going to have a temper tantrum and swear in a very loud voice, make sure there's nobody else around.


steve said...

What an unbelievable achievement! Thoroughly enjoyed the race report and learning about your race plan and strategy. Just amazing to get within 5 minutes of your goal over such a long distance.

Really pleased for you Mark. Enjoy the moment!


clea said...

Thanks for letting Meghan and I be a part of your 100 mile dream race. It was a lot of fun.

Derek said...

What a great race you had through all the ups and downs! Thanks for all your help and tips to get me through my 1st 50 miler. Enjoy the moment!!

John said...

Absolutely incredible Marky, well done, superb time, fantastic result, really proud of you bro.

meredith said...


What a fantastic day! I am so glad that I was randomly located in all of the right spots to cheers for you. Very fun :) Way to set a goal and go for it!! Have a fantastic recovery. mer

Cynical Mud Babe said...

Congrats on running such a great race and essentially hitting your goal... VERY impressive! You rock!

Larry said...

Awesome race! You looked so strong when I saw you out there. And, a HUGE thanks for making sure I didn't leave my runner behind after we left the Damn aid station. Greatly appreciated. You were cruising!

brenda said...

Congratulations - that's awesome!