I’ve decided to break up the race report into two parts – this one, where I’ll talk about the race itself, and then later I’ll write another post where I’ll discuss what went wrong. This post is long, so if you only really care about what I did wrong, just wait until my next post. Also, in case you missed the earlier post, I dropped out of the race at about mile 63.
I got down to Huntsville State Park after the optional pre-race briefing on Friday night, but still early enough to leave a drop bag for the Damnation aid station. That aid station is the most remote, and they drive the drop bags out the night before the race. Since I’d pass through Damnation two times during each 20 mile loop, I wanted to make sure I had a bag there to get food and different clothes (if needed). After eating a glamorous Taco Bell dinner, I settled into my tent for the night (I camped at the park, about 1/3 mile from the start/finish line).
Race morning, I made it to the starting line with maybe 5 minutes to spare. And that was fine, since I didn’t have any reason to get there early anyway. I dropped my big bin of food/clothing/random shit in the drop bag area at the starting line, and joined the crowd for the start.
Loop 1 (miles 1-20):
It was still dark at the start (6am), so we were all running by headlamp for the first few miles. I managed to find my groove surprisingly early, particularly for a trail race with a field so large (there are often bad bottlenecks near the start of trail races, as everyone funnels down onto singletrack). Within the first few miles, a runner (Wael) came up from behind me and noticed the shirt I was wearing (from a Kansas City trail race). While I didn’t recognize him, we had run some of the same races when I lived in KC, and we ended up sticking together for the vast majority of the first loop. We were going at a remarkably similar pace, although he was running more of the hills than I was, but I could walk faster than him so we always seemed to join back up at the top of the hills. Right near the end of loop 1, I decided to surge ahead a little, and so we parted ways.
Coming into the start/finish area after the first loop, I was caught off guard by two people coming towards me saying “Are you Jesse? What do you need? What can we help you with?” These two, Larry and Sherrie, were also from KC, and my friend Indi had let them know that my crew/pacer fell through and that I was running solo. As it turns out, Larry was Wael’s pacer for the last 40 (and Sherrie would be pacing someone that I didn’t meet). They were super awesome, and I would end up seeing them at most of the aid stations from this point on.
Overall, the first 20 went quite well. It was getting to be surprisingly warm by the end of the loop, but I had been able to eat at every aid station and was hydrating well. The first 20 took me 3:37:55, or roughly 10:30/mile. I was pleased with that time, particularly since I had already been incorporating a hefty number of walk breaks into the first loop, trying to save my legs for the many miles to come.
Loop 2 (miles 21-40):
Early on this loop, I took my first fall. I had tripped on roots a couple of times during the first loop, but had managed to catch myself each time. I was glad to have a fellow runner witness this fall though, as I somehow managed to successfully navigate a parkour-esque roll and kept myself from getting hurt. I didn’t pop back up onto my feet, but at least I didn’t do a face-plant.
Most of this loop went quite well, although my legs were really starting to hurt relatively early on – the pain was a lot more intense earlier in the race compared with my previous 100-miler. But, I tried not to worry about it too much since my hydration and nutrition was going so much smoother than my first 100. I was keeping to regular walk breaks (mostly up the hills), and did my best to ignore the growing pain in my quads. I was still feeling confident of my ability to finish.
Near the end of the second loop, the pain in my quads became significantly worse. Walking wasn’t too painful, but running definitely was. I did the math, and realized that if I power-walked the rest of the time, I’d still have a shot at a sub-24 hour finish. I completed loop 2 in 3:55:32 (~11:45/mile).
Loop 3 (miles 41-60):
At mile 42, I had the distinct pleasure of being lapped by the current course record holder, Ian Sharman. So, he had managed to run 62 miles in the time it took me to run 42, although in the end he came out in second place.
I started to have a couple of blisters on my feet, so at the aid station around mile 43, Sherrie and Larry stepped in to tape them up for me. I kind of thought that they would just hand me tape to take care of it myself, but they really stepped right in. Sherrie didn’t shy away from touching my disgusting feet, and taped them right up for me. It took no time, and I was on my way.
By about mile 46, I was really in a lot of pain. My quads were not doing well at all. I ended up doing a lot more walking (good thing I’m a fast walker, and can hold a 12:xx/mile walking pace on flat terrain). I was still eating and drinking well, and my blisters weren’t overly painful, but my quads – sh*t did they hurt. As the miles progressed, I was able to short stints of running on flat trails without any roots, but picking up my legs over the incessant roots proved to be a challenge. My hopes of a sub-24 hour finish drifted away, and my hope to simply finish kicked in. I have a video that I took around mile 53, and in it I’m trying really hard to not start crying as I’m talking about how I’m feeling.
Late in this loop, Wael caught back up to me. He told me that we could stick together, and that we’d pick up Larry as our pacer at the end of this loop (pacers can start anytime after mile 60). We were on a section of course that was jeep trails, and so with minimal roots I was able to keep up with him for a bit. But I knew as soon as the trail turned back into root-covered singletrack, I wouldn’t be able to keep pace. I told him to go on and run his race, and wished him well (he went on to a strong sub-24 hour finish!)
I came into the aid station at the end of the loop in immense pain and feeling defeated. I took the time to change my socks, and had some wonderful help re-taping my feet from some random people who were waiting for their runner to come in. I rolled my quads for a few minutes, using a rolling pin that Wael had let me borrow.
I finished the third loop in 4:50:10 (14:30/mile).
Loop 4 (miles 61-63ish):
As I left the aid station for the start of the fourth loop, I pulled out my phone and called my wife. I tearfully told her that I didn’t think I was going to finish the race. I knew that the aid station at the start/finish area would be the easiest (translation = worst) place for me to make that decision though, so I told her I was going to keep going at least until the next aid station. I don’t think I was able to run a single step during that section, and my walking slowed way down. By the time I reached the next aid station, ~3 miles into the loop, I knew my race was over. I stepped to the side of the aid station, and called Natasha to tell her I was dropping. I’m sure if was hard for her to understand me through my crying (and the poor cell signal!). She did her best to talk me out of it, and after realizing that my mind was made up, she did her best to console me. I already knew where I had went wrong, and at the time I felt good about my decision to DNF. I didn’t like it, and definitely wasn’t proud of it, but I was ok with it.
I told the aid station leader I was dropping, and some members of a runners’ crew offered to give me a ride back to the start area as soon as their runner passed through. So I laid down on a log (not real comfortable), and did my best not to become even more of a crying mess in front of everyone. Shortly thereafter, I turned in my timing chip at the main aid station and walked (slowly and painfully) back to my tent.
Here’s a mental note for future reference: getting in and out of a tent when you’re legs are completely trashed is a very, very difficult thing to do. It probably took me at least 15 minutes to unzip the rain fly, crawl into my tent, and zip it back up. I laid there for a while before getting the strength up to go take a shower. Getting back into the tent afterwards wasn’t any easier. I’ll be honest, when I felt the call of nature after I had laid back down, the thought of getting back up for something so trivial as peeing was more than I could take. So I moved myself over to the door, and did my business without ever leaving the tent. I was thankful for being a guy.
I woke up at 1am, and was really hungry. Hungry enough to make me go through the painful ordeal of getting out my bed and into the car (which took another 15 minutes to move literally 10 feet). Thank goodness for fourth-meal at Taco Bell. I don’t think I’ve ever devoured that much Taco Bell in such a short period of time.
I had to stick around the next morning until 11am to have my drop bag from Damnation returned. It was extremely difficult for me to wait around at the race site, listening to the cheers for runners still finishing up. I could have waited in the heated area that they had at the start/finish area, but chose to isolate myself in my car instead. I was able to keep most of my tears from flowing until Sarah McLaughlin’s ‘Angel’ song came on the radio (seriously, has there ever been a more depressing song? Or maybe it’s only depressing because of all of the SPCA commercials. Regardless, not a song I want to hear when I’m trying to hold back tears).
Anyways, I grabbed my drop bag as soon as it was delivered, and got myself out of there as quick as I could.
Next up, I’ll talk about what went wrong. And I’ll be sure to keep Sarah McLaughlin off my iTunes rotation while I’m writing that post.
Not the post I wanted to write, but I dropped at mile 63. Will write more later. I appreciate all the support for this crazy endeavor.
I’m settled into my tent for the night, but I feel far from ready for the race tomorrow. I’ve had an emotionally draining 24 hours, and I’m just not sure I’ve got it in me to power through the mental aspect of the race tomorrow. The way I’m feeling, I put the odds of a dnf at 60%. I hate saying that, but that’s how I’m feeling. Adding to that, my crew/pacer (2 friends) weren’t able to make it due to a family emergency. So I’m completely solo down here. Yes, I know that I have people supporting me from afar, but no one here to look me in the eye and tell me to suck it up and get moving.
Hopefully I wake up feeling better in the morning (although the odds of me feeling good at 4:30 any morning are slim!). The only hope I’m really feeling right now rests in the fact that I’ve covered this distance once before. My friend Bill made me a stone necklace thing when I finished my first 100. I’ll be wearing it tomorrow as a reminder of that successful race.
Would anyone be interested in reading short updates while I’m running the race this weekend? I plan on carrying my phone with me, and thought about maybe posting a few photos/updates along the way. I make no guarantees as to how coherent, family-friendly, or consistent the posts would be.
I’d like to think I’ll post again before the race, but we’ll see how things go. So for now, I’ll leave you with the kick-ass video my wife made of my first go at the 100-mile distance.
Some random thoughts as I prepare for the Rocky Raccoon 100, which is just a couple of days away.
The logistics of running an ultramarathon are quite different from running a more traditional distance event like the marathon. The logistics get even more complicated as the distance increases from a 50k to a 50-miler to a 100k to a 100-miler. While far from an inclusive list, here’s a quick primer for those of you who haven’t yet made the transition from road races to longer ultramarathons (which are most often trail races).
You won’t find anyone standing with a cup of water in their hand, ready to hand it to you as you fly past them like you would in a road race. In fact, you likely won’t see any cups at all. In most (if not all) ultras, you’re expected to be self-sufficient when it comes to how you drink your fluids. The race will provide water, Gatorade, whatever, but you’re expected to have your own water bottle or hydration pack. Part of this stems from the fact that most ultras are trail races, and littering in the forest is generally shunned. Another reason is that it’s just not feasible for most runners to be able to stay adequately hydrated over 100 miles if they are only drinking when they are at aid stations.
Another unique aspect of ultras is the food that you’ll find at aid stations. Very few runners will consume only gels. At my first 100-miler, they had sandwiches, boiled potatoes, bacon, hamburgers, chips, fruit, and more. At one aid station, they even had a slurpee (slushy) machine. Seriously. It was awesome.
Despite the kick ass aid stations, and the amazing volunteers who will help you with anything you need at aid stations, many racers still like to have their own “crew.” Your crew can help you at aid stations, but generally not anywhere else. Getting food, helping change socks/shoes, quick leg massage, and refilling water bottles are generally the most frequently performed tasks. Probably the most important job of the crew is psychological though. As a runner racks up the miles, their brain generally starts to shut down. Having a crew member who knows the runner well (spouses make excellent crew, assuming they’re willing!) can be a life saver, as they can spot changes in the runner’s coherence and mental state much easier than a random aid station volunteer. The crew also generally knows what the runner has eaten, or if they’ve not been eating, and can encourage (force) the runner to eat before moving on.
Ultramarathons are the only athletic events that I can think of where an athlete can have someone participate alongside them for the sole purpose of psychological support. The word “pacer” is somewhat misleading, as unless you are an elite runner, your pacer is probably not going to be doing any pacing at all. They are just going to be running (walking) with you, making sure you’re safe and that you keep moving. A pacer is not allowed to offer any other kind of support to a runner. “Muling, which refers to carrying something for the runner (food, fuel, water, clothing, anything), is strictly forbidden. Many races require that pacers remain behind the runner, thus preventing them from leading the way on the trail. In most cases, you can only have one pacer at a time, but multiple people can pace you over the course of the race. Pacers generally aren’t allowed to start running with you until the last 1/3 to 1/4 of the race.
I’ve never heard of a marathon runner having hallucinations mid-race, but it’s a relatively common occurrence in 100 mile races. Seriously, you should do a quick google search on the topic. You’ll find some pretty funny stories. Odd things happen to a sleep-deprived, over-worked body.
Running at night:
Everyone who runs a 100-miler will be running through the darkness at some point in the race. It’s a weird experience at first, and something that should be practiced before race day. Most racers opt for headlamps, as it keeps their hands free and the light is always pointed in the right direction. Others will opt for a handheld flashlight, as having the light source lower to the ground shows shadows and creates a better sense of depth perception on more technical terrain. Some opt for both. Whatever you choose, make sure you have extra batteries. You’ll need them.
You will be in pain. Lots of pain. Embrace it, and just keep moving. If you think about it too much, you probably won’t finish. 100-milers are more a test of your mental strength than they are of your physical strength.
“Running is 90% mental. And the other 10%? That’s mental too.”
– Scott Jurek
Rocky Raccoon is considered to be one of the “easier” 100 mile races in this country. The race is held near Huntsville, TX (home to Texas’ death row), just north of Houston. The course consists of five loops of 20 miles each, and the terrain varies between jeep trails and single track. Evidently the single track is covered with tree roots, and many runners find themselves tripping on them (particularly at night).
The course is relatively flat, at least as far as ultra’s are concerned. I’ve read estimates of about 5500 feet of elevation gain over the 100 miles. Because of this, the race draws a heavy number of 100-mile virgins. It also draws some big name runners, and this year the race is hosting the USA Track & Field (USATF) 100 mile championship.* The current course record holder, Ian Sharman, is scheduled to race again this year. In 2011, he finished in less than 13 hours. Do the math, and his average pace start to finish was about 7:38/mile! Seriously, the guy can’t be human.
Rocky Raccoon has more aid stations than the average 100 miler. On each 20 mile loop, you’ll pass through an aid station five times. One of the aid stations, Damnation, you go through twice on each loop. The longest distance between aid stations is six miles, which really isn’t bad at all (a lot of ultras don’t have any aid stations that close together).
- Dogwood (start/finish area)
- Nature Center – 3.1 miles (3.1 total)
- Damnation – 3.09 miles (6.19 total)
- Damnation – 6.01 miles (12.20 total)
- Park Road – 3.41 miles (15.61 total)
- Dogwood – 4.39 miles (20.00 total)
In the past, they have held a 50 mile and a 100 mile race on the same course at the same time, with the 50 mile racers starting an hour after the 100. Rocky Raccoon is held in a state park, and the park has capped the number of runners at 750 total. Last year, Rocky sold out relatively quickly. New this year, they’ve separated the two races, with the 50 mile race happening the weekend after the 100 mile. This allows 750 100 mile runners, and another 750 50 mile runners, rather than the old combined max of 750. Even though there’s not 750 people signed up for the 100 mile race this year (I think there’s about 600), it will still be the largest trail race I’ve ran. In road racing, the road generally stays the course generally stays the same width throughout the race. On trails, everyone gets funneled down onto the singletrack relatively quickly. As a racer, you’re left to decide if you want to expend more energy at the beginning to jockey for a good position going into the singletrack, or if you’d rather save your energy and risk getting stuck behind much slower runners (keep in mind, it’s much more difficult to pass slower runners when the trail is only wide enough for one or two runners, and not wide like a road).
No finishers medals at this race. Instead, the prize is typical of most 100 mile races – a belt buckle. The course has a 30 hour time cutoff, but there is a special buckle for those who finish under 24 hours. The two buckles are similar, with the 24 hour buckle adding some color and text to note the achievement of “sub 24 hour.”