Loop 1: 0-20 Miles, 6:00am to 9:37am
Someone counted down from 10 and we were off. This is the scariest part; it's dark, you're shoulder-to-shoulder and heel-to-toe with other runners on a narrow trail that you KNOW has roots and rocks. Everyone is friendly and facing the the same hazards, so we focus hard on the trail and not making a mistake.
It's like this for the first 2 miles until the herd thins out, and though I and everyone else stub a couple of roots, I see only one runner fall in my vicinity.
I take my time and settle into an easy pace. Disciplined pacing early in the race is critical, and I know I'm probably going a little too fast (~9-MM), but I can't help it. This seems dawdling now, but this pace 20 hours from now would be blazing. That's the way ultras are; it's all about perspective and things being relative.
In addition to the bridges and boardwalks, there were snow patches in places like the palmetto plant leaves, fallen trees and even on top of the dreadful exposed roots. To step on one of those was to invite disaster. All in all, it was a very pretty scene as the early light of dawn started breaking.
Cautious strides on the snowy boardwalks were easy enough. Confident as I was running across one, I lead with my right foot on the down-sloping ramp and instantly my feet shoot out from under me and I land flat on my left-side rear, shoulder and elbow. No snow here; that was solid ice. Crap! I'm into the race 5 miles and I've already taken a hard fall. The guy behind me stops and asks if I'm OK. I get up, yep seem to be; nothing wrenched or broken. Wow, that was too close; must be more careful.
It's still very cold and after a couple hours of running, the moisture from wiping sweat and runny nose drainage has soaked my gloves and now has frozen, especially my left one. My fingers are stone-cold numb and there's nothing to do about it. Must tough it out and wait for the day to warm up. It's the first of many annoyances that will have to toughed out in the oncoming hours.
The miles pass and soon I'm on the final stretch of Loop 1 and coming into Dog Wood start/finish line and aid station. The hands have thawed out, the bumps from the fall forgotten, my body is feeling good; it's a great day.
I show my bib number to the timer-lady and a volunteer brings me my drop bag. I ditch the headlamp and skull cap, grab a bite of some food off the table, top off the bottle, and head out onto the trail.
20 miles done; only 80 to go.
Loop Time = 3:37, Total Elapsed Time = 3:37
Loop 2: 21-40 Miles, 9:37am to 2:01pm
The aid stations are located such that there is 3-5 miles between them and a runner can stay fueled and hydrated pretty easily. The longest stretch is the 6-mile loop out on the "far side" when you leave and return to "Dam Nation".
In years past, this station was known as "Dam Road" because of its proximity to the lake's dam. This year they've renamed themselves Dam Nation, so that's what we'll call them. This is the busiest station because of all the runners from the 50-mile race and the 100 will come through twice on each of their loops.
This race does a great job of taking care of runners. Each station has its own personality and they are constantly preparing a smorgasbord of foods, snacks, and drinks. It's really fun to roll up to one and see what's cookin'. My stomach is not picky and I get a little bit of everything.
I pull my bottle from the waist-belt, hand it to a volunteer and say "water" or "g-ade" while I pound down some food. My goal is to keep those calories coming and not run into a deficit like I did last year. Once you get behind, it's really hard to catch up. Even though it's cold, I keep drinking and staying hydrated.
The morning is beautiful and the woods are alive with birds among others, I hear the distinctive calls of Pileated Woodpeckers. Cool.
The snow and ice is melting off the bridges and boardwalks and I approach the bridge where I fell hours ago. As I make the same step again, my foot slides out from under me, but I catch myself this time. Boy, that was close! I can't believe I almost did it again. Everything is melted and crunchy except that one. I notice the chewed up dirt at the bottom of the ramp: I'm not the only who has fallen here today.
The miles pass, I kick a few roots, but don't fall. It's warmed up and I pull off the arm warmers, and tuck them in my belt. After a couple miles I check and realize that one has slipped out. Dang it! I don't want to lose one, so I turnaround and head back down the hill hoping it's not too far back. I mentally debate how far am I willing to backtrack.
A following runner says it's laying in the trail about 300 yards back. Well, that's not too bad, but I do have to climb that hill again. That's not as bad as a woman I chatted with who said she was going to have to make up 2 additional miles because of a wrong turn she made earlier. Every expenditure of energy comes at a cost that has to be paid, so you parcel them out in a miserly fashion.
My body is feeling great and the miles are passing by. Aside from finishing, my goal is to be sub-24 and I feel like I have shot at it if I average 4-1/2 hours per loop. Loop 1 at 3-1/2 hours was way too fast and I'm slowing it down to an easy run and walking up the steeper sections.
Every so often the trail doubles back on itself an you have some two-way traffic. A couple of times I see the leader pack blasting past. It's amazing to see how fast and effortless they're running. No telling what loop they are on and how many miles they have left.
I go shopping at the Park Road station located 4.4 miles from Dog Wood: banana bites, orange slices, potato chips, a peanut butter sandwich quarter and grab a slice of pepperoni pizza for the trail. A female runner that I pass says I'm lucky to be able to eat and run at the same time.
The snow and ice is gone, my hands are warm so I've pulled off my wet gloves and hung them on my belt to dry. Soon enough, I roll into Dog Wood.
40 miles done, only 60 to go.
Loop Time = 4:24, Total Elapsed Time = 8:01
Loop 3: 41-60 Miles, 2:01pm to 7:24pm
I get my drop bag and stash my leg tights and long-sleeve shirt. It's still a little cool, but staying running will keep me warm. Fill the bottle, grab some eats, and hit the trail.
Roll through 2 more aid stations and do a little math in my head. Right about now, I'd be done if I was doing the 50 miler. At about 10.5 hours, it would've been a decent time and I know I could've run faster if I was doing a "short" distance like 50, but no; I'm just barely half way done. I quickly quit thinking about it.
I slow down some more knowing I have time in the bank due to that fast Loop 1. If I finish Loop 3 around 13-1/2 hours, I'll be perfect. The cool air against the uncovered skin feels refreshing and my legs are still doing well, but I'm slowing it down because this is where the race can go well, or can start going south. So to play it smart, I set the timer on my watch to go off every 5 minutes; run 5, walk 5, repeat. Gotta save that energy and strength.
I leave Dam Nation and make it a point to start the 6-mile far-side loop with a full bottle and I'm carrying some Power Bar protein bites for extra calories during this extended time. I also make it a point to have that bottle empty when I get back to Dam Nation. I'm peeing well and regularly; just stop beside the trail, it's what everybody does in an ultra.
The hours and the miles pass as I concentrate on the trail. I'm still kicking too many roots. No falls, but my toes are taking a pounding. I've developed into a specialist of moving forward, any other movements such as stopping, turning abruptly, stepping backwards is a killer and best avoided.
I come up on a guy who's gamely running/walking on an obviously bad leg. We're at about the exact same pace, so we start chatting. He's 30 and a good athlete who's run ultras before, but today his right knee decided to quit bending properly at mile 42. He's come down from Virginia, is a former Army Ranger and we talk about military stuff as well as racing. After a couple of miles I end the relationship by running on ahead. I looked him up later and he dropped out at mile 80.
I'm moving well, but everything's getting harder. It's harder to start running again after stopping or walking. The miles are adding up and taking their toll on my body. The beat-down is in full process.
It's even getting harder to keep my arms up. The forearm muscles (the brachioradialis; I looked it up) are wiped out and I continually alternate between letting them dangle and trying to hold them up. The fingers are swelling, so at times while I'm walking, I just hold them up in the air, walking along like a prisoner of war. I call it my POW march. Funny thing; later in the night I see a guy up ahead of me holding his hands in the air, too. We're both POWs at the same race.
I grab my back-up headlamp from the Dam Nation drop bag because I know it'll be dark before I make it back to Dog Wood. I also pull on my spare tights and shirt because due to the slow pace and the setting sun, it's starting to get cold and by the time I arrive at Dog Wood 8 miles later and check in with the timer-lady, I'm already getting chilled.
60 miles done, only 40 to go.
Loop Time = 5:23, Total Elapsed Time = 13:24
Loop 4: 61-80 Miles, 7:24pm to 2:46am
Now is when it starts getting tough. Now is when it is nice to have a support crew. The volunteers have thinned out some or are tending to hurting runners. I have to go find my own drop bag and go inside a warming tent to find a chair. It's time to add some more clothes and get ready for the long night ahead.
My hands are so numb I can barely undo the snap buckle on the bag. Finally open, I fish out some lightweight sweat pants, fleece top, and swap out my headlamps. Pulling on the clothes seems like forever because of the total body stiffness, the awkward chair and the cramped space.
Hey, over there by the propane heater is Anton Krupicka who has just finished minutes ago in 13:18:52. Hey, over there by the heater laying on the ground with his feet elevated on a chair is the winner, Ian Sharman who finished 35 minutes ago in 12:44:33. Hey, there's Scott Jurek who just stepped on my foot as he's walking towards the heater. (He dropped out at mile 60.) Their race is done, mine is just beginning.
Dressed and ready to roll, I eat some orange slices, grab some hot, fried, greasy sausage links wrapped in a tortilla (awesome), and head out into the night.
By now I'm running less and walking more. I've officially entered that transitional period of when a fast walk is more productive than a slow run. I've turned off the watch; no need to continue the 5 minute cycles. It's time to start making forward progress the best way I can.
Can't think about 39 miles to go, just make it to the next aid station (Nature Center) 3.1 miles away, then from there to the bridge where I fell 60 miles and 13 hours ago, then another couple miles to Dam Nation and that dreaded far-side loop. Just keep grinding away.
Make it to Dam Nation and get ready for the 6 mile loop. The herd has really thinned out. All the 50-milers are done, runners are DNFing the 100 and the rest are scattered over 20 miles of trail.
They're cooking up ramen noodles and cheese quesadillas among other things, so I eat one and grab a Styrofoam cup of hot noodles for the trail. I get a little hasty on the eating, it tickles my throat and I start coughing up noodles. Some comes out my nose and I clear the rest with a good old-fashion snot rocket. Ah, ultra-running. Lovely.
In addition to dark and lonely, the trail in this section is hilly and pretty gnarly and somewhere in here in the next mile or so is where I run my last step of the race. Unless you're running well, it's better to walk fast.
There's no real landmarks, so the immediate goal is the turnaround point where they have a small gasoline generator and a timing mat set up. In years past, they'd post a volunteer out here to record numbers; talk about a lonely duty. Finally, I hear the quiet purr of the generator and the beep as my chip passes. Another mini-goal completed.
The fingers are swelling and I can't hold my arms up, so I interlace my fingers on top of my head to support the arms while I walk. The POW look is complete. To pass the time, I quote dialog lines from Lonesome Dove from memory. A captive of the race, I march along like a good soldier talking to myself.
It was during this part last year when my son and I walked together talking about life and random subjects. Tonight I'm starting to consider stopping at the end of this loop. My feet are hurting, the legs are stiff and I just really want to go to sleep. I can come up with any number of reasons to quit, even lie if I have to to justify it.
Without realizing it, I've slowly slipped into the deepest funk of the race and the urge to stop by the trail and lay down to sleep is fierce. It would be so easy. As I cross a bridge with smooth footing, I close my eyes while walking and nearly nod off. Keep moving, never quit, keep going, never quit!
My whole race existence is reduced to a 4-foot circle of light from the headlamp, my thoughts and staying in motion. Dang-it! Kicked another root. Talk about waking you up. How does that happen? Going slow and still can't see those roots. It happens.
Another couple miles and I reach the dam. The trail goes along the top of the dam for 200 yards and you have a clear view of the sky. I get on top, stop and switch off the headlamp to absorb the sights and sounds of the night.
I find The Big Dipper, The Little Dipper, The North Star, Cassiopeia; yep, all of them still in the same place as the last time I saw them. Across the lake about a quarter mile away are the lights of Dog Wood and I hear the cheers go up as someone is finishing. There it is, so close, but I've got almost 9 circuitous miles of trail to go before I get there. Quit thinking about it, turn on the lamp and get walking.
Finally, I pull back into Dam Nation and I'm getting a little desperate; my feet are really hurting, nothing specific, just overall pain from the miles, the rocks and the roots. I have to do something.
I get my drop bag, find a chair in a tent and pull on another pair of socks. Now I'm wearing 3 pair of socks; the Injinji toe socks, a medium thickness wool liner and now a technical running sock. Lace the shoes back up and the effect is immediate; cushioning and sweet relief.
While I'm doing this, the race director, Joe Prusaitis, is there checking on his troops and talking about how the the race is going and how many people are dropping out due to the cold and the trail. There's a report of someone breaking a leg and other minor injuries requiring "rescue" from the course.
Confession time: I do something I've never done before. I'd heard a runner say something about taking Ibuprofen and I ask if they have any. Yes, we do, she says. I take two. First time ever I've taken anything in a race or even training. I'd seen some articles about NSAIDs and endurance athletics messing with your kidneys, but I figured I was well-hydrated and I wasn't exerting myself *that* hard.
I eat some fried hot dogs slathered in mustard and wrapped in a tortilla, orange slices, and cup of chicken noodle soup for the trail. Literally, within minutes of the food, the pills and the additional socks, I'm feeling GREAT. Better performance through chemistry.
I'm moving with renewed vigor; no running, but a very strong power walk, and I actually start passing people. I've got about a Marathon to go and the 3.4 miles to Park Road aid station pass rather quickly (if your idea of quick is 1 hour) and soon I'm at the table eating avocado, strawberries, blueberries, and piece of pizza and I grab one of those little, hard chocolate donuts for the trail.
After a mile or so, I approach a corner on the trail and I see headlamps and hear voices. There on a boardwalk is a runner laid flat on his back covered in various jackets. Another runner is on her cell phone and I ask did he take a fall? The laid-out dude answers, "I'm OK, but I've just run out of gas and I cannot take another step." Yep, been there. 1:30 in the morning and his race is over. It's not life & death and he's being attended to, so I move along, nothing I can do here.
I've pretty much whipped myself out of my funk and start doing some walk math in my head: At this pace I should finish in about 26-27 hours. The sub-24 is long gone, but beating the 30-hour cut-off and getting that finisher buckle will happen if I can just maintain.
2 more miles into Dog Wood and I'm pulling out my bib to show the timer-lady. It's not not enough to tell her your number, you gotta show her. They are real sticklers here for catching cheaters and keeping everything accurate.
80 miles done, only 20 to go.
Loop Time = 7:22, Total Time = 20:46
Loop 5: 81-100 Miles, 2:46am to 10:00am
Grab a hat and a fleece jacket from the drop bag. The temps have dropped back down into the 30s and it's getting colder for the runners out on the course; me included. Also, get my secret weapon; a 5-hour energy shot, maybe it will help later on. Get some more food off the table, but I forget what.
Bundled up, I head out into a distance I've never done before. Last year I DNF'd at 80; I've just gone farther than that with each footstep. Now I'm counting off those footsteps knowing that each one shortens the distance to the end.
Now, I know each place I pass, it'll be the last time; no more repeats. I've got some diaper rash from the miles and the chafing, so I get some Vaseline at the Nature Center station and slip around behind the tent to get lubed up. Oh, that feels good.
Another mile and I cross the bridge where I fell almost 24 hours earlier; seems like a long time ago. Runners (walkers really) are out there with their support crew and pacers helping them along; I'm by myself.
It's dark and as the temps edge closer to freezing, my headlamp illuminates the breath vapor and I think about all the mountaineering survival stories I've read. Men (and some women) finding themselves in extraordinary situations and having to push themselves beyond their limits in order to live.
Well, this is not life & death and there's no real danger except kicking a thousand roots, but in a way this is just as hard because it is completely voluntary. I can quit at any minute; I don't "have" to do this. Just stop, lay down, curl up and sleep. That's easy. Hard is keeping going when everything in you says stop; now.
The reason I registered, the reason I'm here is to experience what it's like to keep pushing when you've got nothing left. Keep going is what I do, it's what most do, I've come too far to quit now (BTW, this year did have a 40% DNF rate, the highest ever). I've got too much invested in this until now to have to wait a whole year to try it again. Been there, done that.
Turn the trail corner and the lights of Dam Nation appear 300 yards away. Just make it there and get something to eat. They're cooking up pancakes. I grab a hot one, pour syrup on it and eat. Syrup runs off onto my glove, I suck my glove. Top off the bottle, I've a 6 mile loop that's going to take about 2 hours to do.
That thought is just too depressing to think about. Instead I think about the fact that if I can go just 3 more miles, I'll be at 90 miles and then if I go another mile after that, then completion can be considered in terms of single digit numbers. I can manage single digit numbers.
It's somewhere around 4:45am and the urge to sleep is overwhelming. The natural circadian rhythm is fully engaged and I'm fighting it. Time to pull out my little helper; the 5-hour energy shot. I down it and hope for a minor miracle. This along with the sunrise that's soon to occur should get me past this stage.
I've passed the timing mat at the far end for the last time and another hour gets me to the dam where I can see the eastern horizon and in the pre-dawn glow I see all the plants and grasses covered in hoarfrost. I believe I'm gonna make it.
Pull into Dam Nation for the last time and drop the headlamp because there's enough light to see. They've cooked up some hot oatmeal, so I get a big cup, squirt some pancake syrup in it, grab a spoon and hit the trail; I can eat while I walk, there's only 7.8 miles to go.
But it's not easy. The Ibuprofen has worn off and there's been some blisters developing on the right foot. The drugs and the general pain has masked them until now, but each step is worse than the last. I can feel the fluid squish up and in between the big toe and the one next door with each step, but to stop and deal with it would just mean more delay and it could even make matters worse. Grit the teeth, embrace the suck, deal with it, keep moving.
Speaking of steps; to pass time, I play with some numbers in my head. 1 mile = 5280 feet times 100 miles = 528,000 feet, divide that by ~2.5 feet per step = around 211,000 steps. Each foot has hit the ground about 105,000 times. Wonder what the ratio of roots kicked per hundred steps is? Too many to ponder and I mentally move on.
Climb the last hill towards Park Road station and dine at the table. Orange slices hit the spot and I eat 4 or 5, corn chips, avocado, some hot apple pie, and another chocolate donut for the trail rounds out breakfast. I thank the volunteers profusely (as I have the others). Only 4.4 miles to go.
It's warming up quickly now and I tie the fleece jacket around my waist. The fluid is no longer squishing, so that means the big blister has finally popped, but the other blister on the small toe is still growing. Who cares now, only 3 miles to go.
I pass some folks slower than me and I'm the slow one that other folks pass. Cross over all the boardwalks near the lake one last time. I know the trail well enough by now to know I'm really freakin' close to finishing.
Turn the last corner and I can see the finish area 300 yards ahead. Relief finally is just down the straightaway. About this time a voice behind me says, "Hey, if we hurry we can beat 10:00 a.m.", and he breaks into a shuffle-kind of jog. When he passes me, my competitive juices kick in and I try to run. This lasts exactly 1 second as my legs will have no part of this foolish endeavor.
The last thing this race needs is two old guys killing themselves for 145th place. I let him go and Mr. Rolly Portelance, 62, from Canada gets his sub-28, clocking in at 27:59:48. WTG Rolly!
There's a bunch of folks there cheering for us and as I cross, a volunteer greets me, presents me with my boxed finisher's buckle, and gives me a big-o hug. Another volunteer removes my chip, and that's good because I don't think I can bend over to take it off.
Another 47 runners would finish in the next 2 hours before the 30-hour cut-off.
Loop Time = 7:14, Total Elapsed Time = 28:00:41
What would you do differently?:
Nothing. Didn't make any real mistakes other than maybe go out a little too fast on the first loop. The body held up well enough; 2 blisters, battered toes, dead legs, and swollen hands aren't too bad of a price to pay. I prepared well and was equipped properly.
This may be my one and only 100-miler. Probably will stick to easier, fun distances like 50-milers and Marathons.
Found my drop bag and walked very slowly the 100 yards back to my truck. Waited until I got back to my campsite to remove my shoes and see how bad the damage was. I knew once the shoes came off, they weren't going back on.
Surprisingly, it wasn't too bad. As expected, the right foot was the worst with the clear drainage from the popped blisters soaking the socks, but no blood or torn-off skin. The left foot was in decent shape considering the circumstances.
Interestingly enough, during the following week of recovery I notice my right leg is hurting the worst. It must be my "go to" leg when making big steps and moves. The deep fatigue and blisters on that foot pretty much confirms it.
Slipped on dry socks and soft shoes, and went to work striking the tent and tossing everything into the truck for the return. Had to go back into Huntsville to pick up my other drop bag that had been brought back from the course.
A fresh hamburger and fries sounded good, so I stopped at Sonic before making the drive home.
I place the finisher's buckle on the center console so I can look at it. :)
What limited your ability to perform faster:
The inability to "run" after 70 miles.
Despite the minor hills and the roots, this race is considered one of the "easier" 100-milers. Don't be deceived, it'll still beat the hell out of you, but a very good runner can set a record on a good day.
The RD and his stellar staff put on a race that cannot be beat as far as taking care of runners and making them successful. You cannot say enough good things about the job they do. After all, most of them stayed up all night also keeping us fed and going.
Last updated: 2011-01-27 12:00 AM
Rocky Raccoon Trail Run
20F / -7C
Overall Rank = 146/316
Age Group = M-52
Age Group Rank = 0/
I had attempted this race last year and had to stop at 80 miles and 23 hours when sickness and lack of energy finally shut me down. I was back to take care of some unfinished business.
This year I wasn't sick, I'd put in as many training miles as I could during a busy Dec and Jan, my body was whole, AND I had some real trail shoes. All systems were good for go.
Last year I had the support of my son, and cousin (KSH). They helped a bunch, but this year I was going solo. All the issues and decisions I might encounter during the race would be entirely my own, unencumbered by any outside influences. Going solo requires total focus.
To save some money, I camped out Friday night at the park. The 2 days leading up to the weekend had snow, ice, sub-freezing temps for most of TX. The snow had stopped earlier in the day and the clouds were clearing off. That means it's fixin' to get really cold.
The forecast was a low of 20 degrees and high of 55, sunny, with little wind. At the pre-race trail brief on Friday evening, the RD said the trails were good & dry, but the wooden boardwalks and bridges are covered in snow and ice: So be careful out there.
I was prepared with my sub-zero sleeping bag and slept toasty despite the temps near 17 according to my thermometer. Since I had gone to bed so early (7:30) I was wide awake at 4:30 waiting for my alarms to go off at 5:00 to get ready for the 6:00 start.
What to wear was a challenge. It was going to be really cold to start, but we all know how quickly you get warmed up while running. I finally decided on a short-sleeve tech shirt with arm warmers and a long-sleeve tech shirt on top and a pair of tights on the legs over the shorts, skull cap and gloves. Any of these layers I could pull off and put in the drop bags as needed.
I got dressed in the pre-dawn dark thinking about all those other runners in their warm motel rooms and found out that my water bottles and Gatorade in the truck had frozen; not solid, but thick slush. I drank the water while eating a hard-as-a-brick protein bar and it really made me chilled. The truck didn't warm up enough in the short drive to the start area, so I was really shivering while waiting to run. The Gatorade in my waist-belt bottle would stay slushy until 9:30 or so. Saving money really costs you sometimes.
Walked the 100 yards from the parking lot to the start/finish line area called "Dog Wood", signed in, and dropped off my drop bag. Since I was lightly dressed, I huddled with the other runners massed in the aid station tents until the start.
Someone yelled out 5 minutes to start, so we slowly started leaving the tents and staging up at the line. The fast runners are up front, and there are several world-class pro runners here; Anton Krupicka, Scott Jurek, Ian Sharman, Hal Koerner, Karl Meltzer just to name a few. I'm somewhere in the middle back.
The breath vapor lit by 300+ runners' headlamps in the freezing air is an awesome sight. Like a herd of bison on the open prairie; we were pawing at the ground and ready to run.