Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Trail Run (DNF)
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Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Trail Run (DNF) - RunUltra Marathon
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My plan was to go out easy, run each loop in 4-5 hours, stay fueled & hydrated and just let the day happen. It's no secret that I did not finish this race, but here's the story (or most of what I can remember).
I was looking for this to be an adventure into a part of myself that I had never experienced before. I've physically pushed myself hard doing things like alpine mountaineering, fast-packing the Grand Canyon, and various multi-sport races including an IM. But could I do something as simple as cover 100 miles on foot in less than 30 hours and shooting for closer to 24?
What would it be like at 3:00 in the morning and still have many miles to go? I didn't know, but I was anxious to find out.
Let's get something clear up front; very few people actually run the entire race. Only the very best athletes are able to run the whole distance. For everyone else; it's a mixture of carefully paced running, fast walking, and saving energy. Most advice I read said to walk all the uphills, even early in the race. This is something I would have force myself to do. My nature is to try to conquer stuff fast, regardless.
Many times throughout the day I would repeat the mantra: Run until it gets too hard and walk until it gets too easy.
The RD counted down until the start and we were off; 344 athletes running off into the dark and into their personal journey; each as different as the other. 5 loops of 20 miles each: Here we go...
Loop 1: 0-20 miles, 6:00am-9:47am (3h-47m) Elapsed time: 3h-47m
Started off well enough and fell into an easy pace. I had started towards the front just to have some clear running space in the darkness. I didn't want to trip on a root early in the race. The goal was to run a 12/m pace, fast-walk the uphills, and don't get distracted by what the other runners are doing.
A SIDE STORY:
I didn't know this, but after the start of the race my family was walking back to the truck and my wife tripped and fell in the dark. While putting out her hands to break the fall, she severely dislocated her elbow. She thought she had broken her arm and yelled out. Of course this brought people to the scene and created quite a flurry of concerned activity. Well-meaning people were trying to get her to do this and do that, and a race medic came over and wanted to call an ambulance. All the while, she wasn't feeling very good.
Quickly, my son took command of the situation and said they were going to the ER in nearby Huntsville. By 7:00am she was getting x-rays and treatment, and my son texted my older son to come up from Houston to take over for the duration. When I saw them again at the end of Loop 2 (40 miles) I was told she'd had a minor "accident" and was "OK", but my older son was going to take her home so she could be more comfortable.
They'd made the decision to keep quiet about the details so I could focus on my race. I didn't find any of this out until Sunday morning after I had finished and was back at camp.
BACK TO THE RACE
The early parts of a trail run are fun because everything is fresh and there's no pain. It's also pretty cool seeing all the headlamps bobbing through the woods. Except for the occasional cough and constant nose drainage (think snot rockets), I was feeling pretty good.
To keep my family and crew informed and minimize the waiting around for them; I carried my cell phone and would send a quick 2-character text telling what aid station I was leaving. By this they could check my progress and know when to be at the Dogwood start/finish area.
Grabbed some bites of food, dropped off the headlamp & gloves, reloaded with gels, and headed back out.
Loop 2: 20-40 miles, 9:47am-2:33pm (4h-46m) Elapsed time: 8h-33m
This loop was the most fun. The day was beautiful. It was cool, but not cold, and everything is still feeling great. By now I had settled into a comfortable pace, had all the mud-holes figured out, and knew which places to walk and which places to run.
I had also stumbled and stubbed my toes several times, but I never went down. I had a couple of "great saves", but never went to the ground like I saw one guy do. He was 10 feet in front of me and, man-o-man, he went face-first into the trail. Hard. He got up OK, but was clearly rattled. It happens.
Killing time; my mind was thinking up names to describe the kinds of roots that were in the trail. "Gatorbacks" were big roots 4"-5" high and across by 2'-3' long with gnarly knobs on the top. "Copperheads" were smaller snake-sized ones that blended in with the leaves. Either of these could get ya; but it was the "Pimples" that were the little nubbins that you hammer a toe into because they were so easy to overlook.
Throughout the day, I met and chatted with different folks from all over the US. Several people told of how warm it was here because they had been training in the sub-zero weather of the far north. This is a very popular race with out-of-state (and country) athletes.
Even with the greatly increased number of entrants this year, the trails never seemed crowded. I had slowed to the perfect pace that I would need to maintain for the duration of the race. If I could just average 4-1/4 hrs per loop, I would be successful this weekend.
I was be-bopping through the woods, texting my updates, downing my gels and fluids, and eating regular food. As I returned to Dogwood; life was good.
Loop 3: 40-60 miles, 2:33pm-8:50pm (6h-17m) Elapsed time: 14h-50m
This is the loop where things started the process of going bad, but I don't really remember the details of exactly when; it just sort of happened. Basically, I just slowly started running out of energy. The head cold, the lack of sleep all week long; everything started hitting me.
My feet were fine; no blisters (that I could feel) and they hadn't hit the hurting point yet. My legs were fine; no cramps or hurt other than the usual dull, stiffness of a lot of miles.
My nutrition plan was simple; live off the course as there would be plenty of variety to eat and supplement it with 1 gel & endurolyte cap every hour. In retrospect, this is where I made a mistake. I should not have relied solely upon gels as a supplement between the aid stations. As I started to slow down slightly, it was taking me longer between stations and I wasn't getting enough solid food. Especially the 6-mile loop on the back-side of the course starting at the Dam Road station.
The descent into the energy deficit was insidious the way it crept up on me. I slowed down which meant more time between eating, which meant a slower pace, etc. The additional 100 calories per gel just wasn't enough at this stage of the game. And the sun was starting to go down. And it was getting cold. Fast.
The 6-mile loop from Dam Road back to Dam Road is a long and lonely stretch with several significant hills as you steadily climb towards the turnaround. And not so funny is the fact that the return is not downhill, but it keeps going up also. At the far end of this loop, 2 race officials recorded your bib just to make sure no one cut the course. Talk about a lonely duty. The volunteers at this race are just as tough as the athletes.
About 400 yards ahead there was a guy who was "running" and I was fast walking and I was ever so slowly catching him. It took me 2 miles to catch and pass him; that's the way trail running is: Moving efficiently for long periods of time. I had slowed down a lot, but still moving well.
To check on me, Timothy had ridden his mountain bike out to the Dam Road station. I was surprised to see him, but glad that he was there when I came in. I had him pull my drop bag and get out my gloves, long sleeve tech shirt, tights, and back-up headlamp. I sat down in a chair (first time all day) and he helped me pull the tights on.
I didn't want to take my shoes off and so we wrestled the first leg on, but it was a long struggle; too long. For the second leg, I just took my shoe off. My feet were still doing well and I didn't want to take a chance of messing anything up, but there were no problems. Funny; I dressed him when he was a baby and now he was helping me get dressed.
By now I was starting to get cold and I still needed to eat something; this was turning into a longish aid stop. Got some macaroni & cheese, chicken soup, cheese quesadilla, and other stuff I don't really remember.
I do remember my legs being very stiff by the time I left the station and it was taking a long time to get moving; first a walk and then a slow run, but I was shivering with cold. Before we split, I told Timothy to meet me at the Park Road station 3.4 miles away with my main headlamp, another long sleeve shirt, a fleece jacket, and warm cap. There was a glimmer of sunlight on the western horizon and soon it would be fully dark.
Fueled with some good food, I actually ran/walked this portion well and made it to Park Road in decent time. A couple miles down the trail I saw a runner up ahead, but I could barely make him out. As I got closer I could tell he had no light; he had gotten caught by the darkness without any light. He was walking slowly and was considering a DNF once he finished this loop. I had gotten somewhat warm from running, but the temperature was dropping faster than I could run.
At Park Road I met Timothy, pulled on the extra clothes, ate what I could and hit the 4.4 mile section of trail back to Dogwood start/finish. This section of trail is tough. It's got everything evil: rocks, mud, roots, a couple of the biggest hills, 2-way trail with runners coming at you, and numerous ups & downs, twists & turns.
I was glad for the extra clothes. Now I was wearing 3 tech shirts, arm warmers, a heavy fleece, cap, tights, and 2 pair of shorts; and I was still just barely keeping warm as the temps were dropping quickly through the 40s, but as soon as I ran some, I'd warm up quickly.
Now a new nuisance was making itself known; my ankles were "burning". Every time I moved my feet (which you do a lot on a trail run) I was getting huge shots of pain and discomfort. It wasn't actually preventing me from walking and running, but it was, by far, the worse thing bothering me right now. This would have to get fixed.
It turns out that the ankle cuffs on my shoe gaiters after 50+ miles had rubbed my skin raw and was even causing blisters, though I didn't know it at the time. All I know was, it was hurting.
Arrived at Dogwood and Timothy was there. Our plan was for him to meet me at the Nature Center station 3 miles away and he would pace (run & walk) with me ~13 miles to Park Road and then Karen would pace me the 4.4 miles back into Dogwood. We would figure out Loop 5 later.
It was going to get into the lower 30s, so I had Timothy pull the other pair of tights from my bag and we went into the athlete's tent (heated) to sit down and put them on. These were looser and we pulled them on over the shoes with no problems. I thought I was bad, but while in the tent, I saw other runners worse off than me. The guy in the chair beside me had his bare feet taped and bandaged up like crazy. I don't know if he was out of the race or just getting patched to head back out.
I got out of that heated tent ASAP, went to the food table, quickly ate what I could, slammed down a 5-Hour Energy shot, and headed out.
Loop 4: 60-80 miles, 8:50pm-5:34am (8h-44m) Elapsed time: 23h-34m
I was nice and warm, full of food, feeling rejuvenated, and ready to run. It lasted about 30 minutes.
It didn't take long for my strength to evaporate into the night air. Also, my ankles were killing me; we had forgotten to deal with that issue.
Time quit being an issue long ago as Loop 3 had deteriorated. I wasn't too concerned with any specific goals now; just keep moving forward as fast I can, the rest will take care of itself. But I was really starting to go slow. Soon I'd find out how slow.
Made it into Nature Center and met Timothy. First thing I had him do was slather Vaseline all over my ankles and tuck the tights underneath to get those damn cuffs off my skin. He did this while I stood there eating what I could. Among other things I remember there being some tangerine sections and strawberries; oh man, those tasted great. I grabbed several cheese quesadillas for the trail and we were off.
But it was a slow walk. There was no running. There was some fast shuffling on the bridges and boardwalks because those were smooth and required no energy to miss roots or adjust for undulations in the trail. And so we walked and we talked.
We talked about life in general, how hard it was during his first tour in Iraq, what it must be like to take a crap at 26,000 feet on the side of a mountain when it's -20° and the wind is blowing 50 miles an hour, different kinds of guns, tattoos, random things. Just my son and I walking through the woods at night. We'd been on many an adventure during his growing up years and now this was just another.
There was no concept of time. It was dark, it was cold, and we were moving; our headlamps lighting the way and our breath vapors filling the air. Periodically, we'd pass another runner or they'd pass us.
Saw the lights of Dam Road station up ahead and it would be time to get some more food. I had them pour some chicken soup in a cup of macaroni and cheese, grabbed some pieces grilled cheese sandwich, drank some coke. Good thing I don't have a sensitive stomach. But my lips were so raw from all the nose blowing and wiping, that the foods with salt in them were burning like crazy. Just another hassle; rubbing Vaseline on them helped a lot. Oh, and my legs were starting to hurt. Nothing specific, just a general, deep down all over hurt.
Off we headed to take on the 6-mile loop. Really not much to say other than it took a long time. I had a watch but it was buried under 3 shirts, a jacket and gloves and who cared what time it was; just keep walking.
Endurance athletes talk about how races like these become a mental challenge more than physical, but I wasn't having too many negative thoughts at this point. I'll say that I was NOT looking forward to doing another loop. I'd gone ~70 miles, I'd just have to harden up to finish the rest. Just keep moving, but my body was not responding. Stepping over the Gatorbacks was getting harder and harder.
I was feeling disappointed because I thought I was letting Timothy down. I bet he thought he was going to be "running" some sections of trail and all I could manage was a slow walk.
Finally made it back to Dam Road. Stood at the food table trying to eat all that I could get. It was a Catch-22: The longer I stayed at a station to eat, the stiffer my legs would get, but I needed to eat, but I wasn't getting enough, but I needed to keep moving. It was a viscous cycle.
Saw runners who'd already DNF'd huddled around propane heaters and a campfire staying warm while waiting for a ride back to the finish. Like a moth being lured to their death, we avoided getting near a heater. Better to stay cold and moving than get comfy. Grabbed a cup of hot ramen noodles and we were off to Park Road where I'd meet up with Karen.
It was during this stretch when I asked Timothy what time it was (~3:00 am) that I started doing some race math. Dang, this loop was taking a really long time and how's that 5th loop going to go?
Finally pulled in Park Road, but Karen wasn't there; we'd texted a little late and it would take her a few minutes to get there. So I went through the same eating routine and hit the trail. Karen would have NO trouble catching up to me.
More mental stuff: During this last 4.4 mile to the finish at Dogwood, I was getting passed by happy folks who were finishing their 5th loop and going in for a sub-24 hour finish. Here I was looking at another 20+ miles. I felt like I was in last place even though I knew better (there were 90+ people behind me). Talk about tough. My mental side was holding up, but my body had nothing.
Within a half mile, Karen caught me and started walking with me. She was ready to "run", but I could only walk. Between the coughing and lack of energy, it was all I could do. I felt like I was disappointing her, too. This probably wasn't the "exciting" trail running she'd envisioned. We too talked about random things, but different subjects than with Timothy.
She had a Garmin and after a bit I asked her what our pace was: 20-25 minutes per mile was the answer. The math was unforgiving; at that rate, finishing before the 30 hour cut-off at 11:00 am was just not going to happen. It was then that I started considering not finishing. I didn't say anything for a while, but after another mile I started telling Karen what I was thinking.
Stopping at 80 miles would be the easy thing to do. I could start loop 5 and hope for a miracle, but no amount of mental push was going to make my body go any faster. I might make it to mile 90 or so, but a DNF is a DNF and I might as well make it easy on all concerned. I know my crew would have done all they could, but I didn't want to drag them any deeper into this thing than they were.
As we walked and we talked about it, I was making peace with it. I didn't feel like a failure, it just wasn't my day; I'd given it my best shot. I was feeling worse about letting down my BT fans and others who were rooting for me. She was encouraging me to do what I felt was best, and to not jump to a hasty decision. Well, I didn't have my life invested in this race, it was only $100 or so for the entry, I hadn't traveled around the world, and trained forever; it was just a trail run.
As the lights of Dogwood shown through the woods, I had made up my mind. As I crossed the mat signaling the end of loop 4 and the start of loop 5, I told the timer lady to pull my chip, I was done. She asked if I was sure and I said yes.
80 miles would be it for me on this day.
What would you do differently?:
Hmmm, where to start?
1. Not be sick. Yeah, being sick contributed to the DNF, but I'll be honest and say that had I been perfectly healthy, I probably would not have made my goal of 22-23 hours. That was a bit too aggressive for my first 100-miler. 30-24 hours, yes, I should have; 22 hours, not likely.
2. A week's worth of poor sleep. It's typical not to sleep well the night before a race. But every night for 5 days leading up to the race; now that's a problem.
3. Nutrition. I needed a better supplemental plan for the times between the aid stations. Some liquids like Infinit or Perpetuem combined with some protein bars probably would have made a big difference. Gels just ain't enough (plus I got tired of them).
4. Training. I was in very good condition, but I should have done several long (20-25 mile) trail run/walks before the marathon in mid-January and squeeze in another before the ultra. I was doing some hard training, but it's no substitute for the real deal.
5. Pacing. I felt like I paced well for the first 40 miles. A little fast for the first 20, but just right for the second 20 to average it out. After that, everything fell apart and too fast wasn't an issue.
6. Clothing. This is one issue that I did well at. My sock combination worked perfectly, only 3 smallish blisters that were never a factor. No chafing in the shorts and shirt areas. Other than cuffs rubbing my ankles raw, the gaiters kept all the trail debris out of the shoes. A slightly taller pair of socks would have prevented that.
None; as soon as I stopped I started getting very cold. Timothy pulled the truck up and I pulled myself into the seat. We got back to camp just before dawn and crashed in the tents for some rest. As tired as I was; I could hardly sleep. After a couple hours, I called my wife to tell her about the DNF and she told me about her elbow.
What limited your ability to perform faster:
See paragraphs above.
Do NOT underestimate this distance. It is tough even at a slow pace. Little things become big things. If something goes wrong, it's probably going to go very wrong. If it bothers you in 13.1 or 26.2 or 50 miles, it's REALLY going to bother you in 80 or 100.
Going from a 50-miler to a 100-miler is 2 times the distance, but it's 4 times harder. The curve is a sharp parabola; not linear.
Another example of how little things add up. If you go the full 100 miles, you'll pass through aid stations 24 times. Stopping for 2-3 minutes at each one to get food and fluids adds up to over an hour of race time that you're not moving forward.
Someone who's serious about this would do well to join a trail running club and get some good advice in their head and training runs in their legs.
For the record it took 2-3 days of recovery before I was sleeping and eating properly again. This distance does a total whack job on your body.
This is a very well run race. This is my second time here and I cannot say enough good things about the aid station staffs and RD. They are all experienced trail runners and really know how to take care of the athletes.
The fact that this race draws world-class runners is a testament to the quality of the organization and its reputation.
Edited later to add:
1. Wife's elbow update. No surgery required. There was a chipped bone. A motion control brace for 4-5 weeks and PT later.
#1 Timothy, me, & Karen at the finish, 5:45 am Sunday morning.
#2 Typical raw ankle. You can't see the little blisters, but they're there. Almost 2 weeks later as I type this, the skin is peeling just like a sunburn.
Last updated: 2009-12-03 12:00 AM
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40F / 4C
Overall Rank = 242/344
Age Group = M50-54
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Those who follow my blog know this was race #2 in my "Running Trifecta" for the spring. First there was the Houston Marathon in January that would actually serve as a training run for this race, and then #3 would be the Boston Marathon in April.
I had put in my miles prior to Houston, ran well there and hit my goals; recovered, and now it was time to take care of race #2. Last year I signed up for the RR-50 at the last minute and did pretty well. This year I signed up well in advance, so I had plenty of time to think about it and prepare.
I'm not a very experienced trail runner, but I was counting on my familiarity of trail running from last year and my generally good fitness and abilities to get me through. I did quite a bit of reading about 100-mile ultras and the main key to success was starting slow and conserving energy. If I could run 12-13 minute miles, keep the aid station stops short and efficient, I was shooting for a time somewhere around 22-23 hours.
Everything was falling into place almost perfectly until the Tuesday prior to the race weekend. That day I was running a fever and had a sore throat. Crap! I was getting sick and I never get sick. Worse than that, I wasn't sleeping well during the nights. 3-4 hours each night was about all I could manage and it was very frustrating.
The taper-week training runs that week went easy enough and I still wasn't worried too much about the race; I had faith my body would pull through at the last minute, like it always has. Thursday and Friday were full-fledged coughing and snot-blowing fests anyway.
My late-night trail running pacers were going to be my younger son (Timothy, the Marine captain) and my cousin Karen (KSH) who were coming in Friday night. We were camping at the park and I had taken Friday off so my wife and I could set up camp and have everything ready for them when they came in later.
The rainy weather had cleared on out and the weekend promised cold mornings and nights in the 30s and cool days in the 50s.
Got my drop bag sorted and race items laid out, and I was ready to go. Went to bed at 9:30ish, but hardly slept at all. Between the head cold and pre-race excitement; I slept 3 hours, maybe.
I'd been awake since 3:00 am anyway, so when 4:45 came around I started waking the others. I would eat and start racing at 6:00, they would come on back to camp and sleep some more.
I ate my standard pre-race breakfast, hit the porta-can, and I was good for go. I had an idea of what I was getting into, but little did I know.
Walked from the truck to the start area, checked in and hung around for the start. I was dressed lightly and counting on the run to keep me warm until the sun came up. Shorts, short-sleeve tech shirt, arm warmers, and gloves. I had several more shirts, tights, fleece clothing, extra gloves, spare headlamp, and extra batteries spread out between my two drop bags.
I just love the scene of your breath vapor on a cold morning being illuminated by your headlamp.