Karl Meltzer is wrong — running 100 miles IS far.
My last attempt at Rocky Raccoon didn’t go so well. I left Hunstville hobbled, dejected and cringing at my rookie mistakes. I vowed to get the DNF monkey off my back.
So resolute was I to return I managed to register for the 2013 race even before the link went live on the Tejas Trails website (don’t mess with a woman on a mission). As a result I was third on the list! The race sold out within a couple of months, but not before several friends also signed up. It was shaping up to be quite the vengeance party.
Unlike in past race reports, I won’t bore you with the minutiae of my training. In short, I’d give it a B+. Didn’t run as many miles as planned, especially during the week, but I committed to my long runs. (Between Oct. 1 and Jan. 12 I ran five 50Ks, two trail marathons and a 50-mile training run). Most of my runs were on trails, and I also worked in a couple of multi-loop runs to simulate the Rocky course.
My training almost got sidelined a couple of times due to a cold, but fortunately it wasn’t too severe. The second time it hit was during my 3-week taper, and since there wasn’t much I could do to improve my fitness, I focused on rest and recovery (and obsessing about my race pacing, the weather, my gear choices, etc.) By race week my cold was basically gone, save for a pesky cough. But the burning in my chest was gone and my breathing had returned. I was pretty confident I could waddle my way to the finish line within the 30-hour cutoff.
We arrived in Houston at 8:30 a.m. on Friday after taking a redeye through Atlanta. (I know, I know; perhaps not the best idea but the flight was cheap by using our Alaska Airlines miles). The flight to Houston from Atlanta was surprisingly empty, and my darling and I both were able to stretch out across the rows for some shuteye during the 2-hour flight. I also slept during the Seattle to Atlanta flight and hoped it’d be enough. (Queue foreshadowing music).
We met up with our friend Kim at the airport, headed into Houston for lunch, then back to the airport to pick up another friend Lisa. We pulled in to Huntsville at about 2 p.m., checked into our respective hotels and then headed to Huntsville State Park for packet pickup. Bib numbers were assigned in order of registration, so I was lucky #3. As the volunteer handed me my bib he says, “Boy, you registered early, didn’t you?” You betcha!
After the race briefing several of us met up with some professors of exercise science who were conducting a research project on rates of perceived exertion (RPE) during a 100-mile race. They would be setting up a video camera on the course 17 miles into each loop; each time we passed we were to call out our perceived exertion on a scale of 6 (sitting on a chair) to 20 (maximum effort; can’t go another step). They promised it wouldn’t be a distraction and that they’d post a cheat sheet for us.
Dinner was once again at Chili’s, but fortunately we got in before the hordes descended. I laid out my clothes, double checked that my drop bag had everything I needed and turned out the lights by 8:30 p.m. I slept reasonably well, but awoke before my 2:45 a.m. alarm. (Because the state park would be charging an entry fee this year, I envisioned long lines getting in to the park. Therefore, I wanted to arrive no later than 4:30). Breakfast was yogurt with homemade granola, washed down with some Starbucks Via. Pre-race jitters were slight; I was ready to do this!
We scored a parking spot close to the start/finish and I dropped off my bag. As I was wandering around I heard a runner asking if they handed out cups or plastic bottles of water at the aid stations. Excuse me? What do you think this is, a marathon? It didn’t look like he had any bottles to carry with him, so I just shook my head as I headed back to the car. (He was a 100-miler, but I have no idea if he finished).
I pinned my good luck monkey charm, Rocky Ray, to the back of my pack, confirmed both my headlamp and flashlight were in working order, and headed back toward the start line with about 15 minutes to go. Unlike last year, the weather was absolutely perfect. We started with just the slightest chill, but I knew I’d warm up quickly and therefore wore a short-sleeved shirt. The forecast called for temps warmer than I prefer to run in (70s), so I stashed a tank top in my bag in case the shirt got too hot. (I also had a couple of long-sleeved shirts and light jackets for the night). Kim and I lined up toward the back, I kissed my darling goodbye, and at 6 a.m. we were off!
My goal was to run the first couple of loops in roughly 4:40 — a 14 min/mile pace. I carried a cheat sheet of times I should be arriving at each aid station in case my Garmin mileage was off. I consistently hit them about 7-10 minutes early; even though I was trying to slow my pace it was tough since I felt so good! I minimized my aid station stops as much as possible, grabbing food to walk with rather than stand and eat. I also dropped my headlamp and flashlight in my DamNation drop bag with the intention of picking it back up during loop #3.
I ran a lot of the loop with Lisa and regaled her with the horror stories of the previous year, pointing out the particularly nasty spots. I clearly sounded like a broken record, as when I got to yet another trouble spot, I started to say, “Last year…” She stopped me mid-sentence; “Was it bad?” she asked. “Yes!” I replied. Then it dawned on me — I was being mocked!
When I got to the researchers I did my best Nigel impression, saying “This one goes to 11.” (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to make that joke). I felt great, I hadn’t tripped too much on the roots, the temperature was still reasonable and I was keeping on top of my fueling and hydration. I finished lap 1 in 4:27 and made a quick pitstop to change my socks and replenish my gels. It really helped to have my darling there crewing as I was much more efficient. Even though it had warmed considerably, I decided not to change into a tank, but grabbed my Waldo visor and slathered on sunscreen. Seven minutes later I was heading out on my second loop.
A word about the roots: they’re tricksy. They’re by no means as bad as what I’ve seen in pics of the HURT course, but they’re relentless. They sneak up on you and grow with every loop. When you’re not stubbing your toes on them you’re slipping off, irritating already raw feet. As a runner passed me on a particularly bad section I noticed he was wearing sandals; not wanting to be snarky I simply asked if he had run in them on this course. Nope! Once again I shook my head. (Several of my friends saw him later in the race, continually stubbing his toes; he DNF’d after 4 laps). About a mile from the aid station one of the roots jumped out at me and I tumbled to the ground in a big poof of dust. No major damage save for a scraped knee and sand embedded into the nipple of my water bottle and stuck to my freshly sunscreened arms.
I was proud at how I was handling the heat, (I’m sure any Texans reading this are saying, “What heat?”) but was happy to fill my bandana with ice the second time I hit DamNation on that loop. I prefer to hold the bandana in my hand and dab at my neck and face rather than keep it tied around my neck; seems to have a better cooling effect. Given the heat and the fact I was 37 miles in to the race, I upped my RPE to 13 — just over somewhat hard.
I finished my second loop in 4:47. My darling tended to some hot spots on my feet, covering them with Kinesio tape, and I changed into my Injinji socks. I also used my damp bandana to wash the sand off my arms and my darling handed me a clean one to take with me. After a quick pitstop at the port-o-potties, I grabbed some food and was out in just over 17 minutes.
The temps had started to cool, but my face was still pretty sweaty. I dabbed it with my “fresh” bandana, only to have my face feel like it was on fire. I then remembered having the same experience with this particular bandana; had it somehow been dipped in sulfuric acid? I didn’t want to ditch it in case it came in handy later in the loop, but I grabbed a paper towel at the next aid station to dab the sweat off. I also took a salt tab for the first time in the race; last year I popped them like candy and my hands swelled like sausages. But I figured I was getting in enough salt from the potato chips and bacon at the aid stations. I grabbed my headlamp and flashlight when I first arrived at DamNation since I wasn’t sure if I’d make the 6-mile loop before it got dark. Although I could have made it, the flashlight came in handy at illuminating those tricksy roots. My RPE for this loop was 15 and I finished in 5:17.
My darling was waiting at the start/finish with his headlamp on, ready to pace me. I changed out of my Hokas into my Cascadias and threw on a long-sleeved shirt. I also switched out my cheapie headlamp for my Petzl Myo XP. The miles had started to take their toll, so I figured I’d be walking a lot of loop #4. However, my darling assured me that was perfectly acceptable; after all, I was about 2 1/2 hours ahead of where I was last year. After about a mile of fast walking I was able to start running again, although I slowed for the nasty rootses. I could feel more hot spots forming on my toes, but fortunately my darling had a blister kit on him and he took care of them at the first aid station.
My legs started getting achy a few miles later, so I decided to pop a couple of Tylenol. I normally don’t like to take drugs during a run, but I figured a couple wouldn’t hurt. I upped my RPE to 17, but vowed I’d have renewed vigor for my final loop and therefore would lower that number. With less than three miles to go to the start/finish, I longed to sit — even for just a few moments. I knew to “beware the chair,” especially since I’d be heading out on my final loop, but I was hoping it’d give me just enough of a reprieve to finish strong. Upon finishing (lap time: 6:15) I headed straight to the port-o-potties. That stop provided just the break I needed, so after replenishing my gels we were off!
I was so happy to be on my last loop that I started running again (or at least shuffling at a fast pace). I cheerily wished the Nature Center volunteers goodbye, thanking them for their service but saying I was happy I wouldn’t be seeing them again… at least this year. My Garmin had died during loop #4, so I had no idea how fast I was “running,” but I felt spry. However, a funny thing happened in the three miles between Nature Center and DamNation: I started to get very, very sleepy.
I had been keeping on top of my nutrition and hydration, plus I had downed a few cups of coffee along the way (the Park Road coffee was particularly tasty and strong). But sleep deprivation caught up to me and I was soon stumbling along like a drunk. I kept telling my darling I just wanted to curl up on the side of the trail for a quick nap; thankfully he refused to let me do so. The temperature had dropped and it was becoming quite cold; had I stopped we both would have been shivering (he had already given me his jacket to wear). I’d stop every so often, leaning over with my hands on my knees for a couple of seconds of sleep. I couldn’t wait to get to DamNation for a catnap. Finally we arrived and I joined a few other runners who were huddled around a heater.
Although I never truly slept, just shutting down for 10 minutes gave me the energy to continue on. However, it also meant my core temperature had dropped considerably. While I had plenty of warm clothes in my bag at the start/finish, I only had one long-sleeved shirt at DamNation. My darling once again came to my rescue, giving me his arm sleeves, hat and gloves. He, meanwhile, wrapped a mylar blanket around him to stay warm. A couple miles out of DamNation I had warmed enough to give him his gloves back. But more importantly, I had passed the spot where I had to drop the year before. HALLELUJAH!
The sun came up toward the end of the DamNation loop which energized me even more. I stopped briefly to eat and ditch my headlamp (my darling carried my drop bag to the end) and waved the volunteers goodbye. Just as I was heading out I decided I should drink one more cup of coffee for good measure; the woman who handed it to me remembered me from the year before when I dropped, so she quickly kicked my ass out. “Fine — I know when I’m not wanted!” I happily yelled as I waddled out.
I felt stronger with every step and started passing several people. I got ahead of my darling when he took a pit stop and I was overcome with emotion: I was going to get my buckle! I’m sure I was a sight as I was running and crying at the same time. As I approached the researchers I think they were surprised to see me running, especially since they were at the top of a small hill. I yee-hawed as I passed, happy to report I was back down to a 13. Soon after I caught up with another friend, Kristin, and we ran together for a spell. But she had gone out a bit too fast (she was hoping for a sub 24), so she let me go on. With about two miles to go my darling also went ahead so that he could capture my finish.
The roots almost took their last revenge on me with a half mile to go, but I was able to catch myself. I made the final turn to the finish line and kicked it into high gear, crossing the finish in 27:00:24. Joe Prusaitis, the race director, came over to take Rocky off my back. He asked if I wanted to bury him, but I said he was my little friend who kept me going when things got rough. In fact, he earned his own buckle:
So, what’s next? Well, unfortunately I remembered my UltraSignup password, so I MAY have signed up for a local race at the end of August (gulp)