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Monday, February 11, 2008

Run, Forrest, Run! Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Race Report


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Well, I'm just going to cut to the chase here...I didn't finish the run. Don and I were able to go 77 miles, but then called it for a variety of reasons, namely the six-inch steps we were reduced to taking weren't going to get us across the finish line in the required 30 hours. So at the last aid station, prior to the start/finish area, we turned in our chips and got a ride back in. Bummer.

Prior week strata-ma-gizing

The weekend prior to the race was an easy run weekend with only a short jog on Saturday morning. Just enough of a run to keep us from stiffening up, but not so much as to use up much energy. The taper was in full effect. By this time, it's far too late to make any inroads into greater levels of fitness, and injuries simply CANNOT happen. Rest is the best thing that we could do, so that's precisely what we did. After our run, we went to breakfast to come up with a strategy for the race. We discussed paces, loop times, you know, boring crap like that. The plan was to go out in the first two loops at a pace that would get us across the finish line in 25 hours. We gave ourselves an additional 15 minutes per loop to do the course because pace, legs, and motivation will all degrade considerably as the race wears on...so we might as well plan for it. As we looked at the times, we felt like we wouldn't degrade as quickly as those paces indicated. We figured that by the end of the 2nd loop, into the 3rd loop, we would actually start to migrate into a pace that would get us in around 24 hours. Now 24 hours was the "big goal"; achievable, but tough. The prize for finishing the race is a belt buckle, but there is a better buckle for sub-24 hour finishers and we definitely wanted to try for a "good" buckle. After discussing paces and looking over gear lists we were ready...or as ready as we would ever be to take on the beast.

En Route

Travel to Houston was uneventful, except that the TSA took my damn toothpaste. What the hell? What, am I going to do with that? Minty, fresh, breath the crew into submission? Whatever. We arrived in Houston, picked up the rental car and drove the 1.5 hours to Huntsville. After a quick lunch, and checking into our hotel, we went to Huntsville State Park to pick up our packets, listen to the pre-race briefing, and partake of the traditional pasta dinner. At some point we stopped by a local Wal-Mart to get some Slim-Fast. And no, I'm not on a diet! Slim-Fast (Original, not Optima) has the perfect ratio of protein/carbs with very little fat to slow digestion, so it is a great fueling option while running these races. Ensure is also very popular, but I've found that the fat content in Ensure makes me feel like I've swallowed a brick for about 30 minutes to an hour after I drink it. For me, Slim Fast is the best option so that's what I drink. I also like the flavor and have been successful with drinking it even when my stomach starts to go south. Remember, the average 100 miler burns between 12,000 and 14,000 calories during one of these races, so eating/drinking as much as possible is essential. That is a week's worth of food for most people...in a single day! Obviously 7 days worth of food while running 100 miles is not an option, so liquid calories are essential. All in all, with all of the packing of drop bags and picking up assorted last-minute supplies, I think we were in bed by 7:00pm.

The Start

The race was to start at 6:00am, but the gates to the park were to open a little before 5:00am. We wanted to get a good parking spot and give ourselves plenty of time to get freaked out about the race, so we got to the park around 5:00am. We mulled around the park making last minute decisions about what to wear, not for fear of being a fashion nightmare, but to anticipate the weather changes. The temperature was a little on the cold side so we both opted for tights and warmer layers. Most chose to go out with shorts and more insulating top layers. With very little fanfare, the race director yelled, "Go!" at 6:00am and we were off.

Loop 1

Rocky is a race that consists of a 20 mile trail loop that is run 5 times. We were under the assumption that the trail was "flat", but it turned out to be quite hilly. There were no killer hills, but I wouldn't call the place "flat". The result of the hills was that our walk/run strategy was not going to work. Let me give you a little background. Almost no one can run the entire 100 miles. In any given race, you can count on one hand, and still have a few fingers left over, the number of people who are able to run the entire race. Everyone else must do some walking. If you are one of the ones who must do some walking (most fall into this category), this is where strategy plays a big part in a successful 100 miler. You must figure out how to best utilize your walking time to ensure that you can run as much of the race as possible. In training, we tried the "run until you can't run any more, then walk" strategy. That got us about 47 miles before we were DONE, and by done I mean "I'm not taking another freaking step" done. Obviously, not a recipe for 100 mile success. The key is to walk more up front so that you can preserve your ability to run until later in the race. We assumed that the course was flat, so we started with a timed walk/run. I didn't take long to notice that we were running up lots of the uphills and walking down the downhills. Other runners were like,

"You guys do realize that you are running up the hills and walking down the backside."
"Yeah, that's our strategy."
"Well, that IS a strategy. I just don't know if it's a good one."

At first I thought we were just being avant-garde, you know, thinking outside of the box. After about 10 miles, I realized we were just f-ing morons. So we stopped that crap, oh, about 10 miles too late. In the end I think that cost us a little energy and distance on the back end of the race. Loop one turned out to be pretty uneventful, except for Don taking a spectacular, somersaulting fall that almost resulted in him kicking a guy in the mouth. I would go through the details, but I just can't do it justice in writing. Ask me about it if you see me. That was the first of many for my buddy Don, but that one got a standing ovation for the dismount. We rolled back into the start/finish area, reloaded up on Gu, took in electrolytes, refilled bottles, and quickly got going for the second loop. Loop one was a little faster than we planned and maybe that cost us on the back end as well. I'm beginning to think that it didn't, but Don and I disagree about this point. I'll discuss my opinion in the Observations part of this article.

Loop 2

Again, Loop 2 wasn't very eventful. I think Don tripped a couple of times, but honestly, I lost track of exactly when each one took place. (You know, I love you Don, but in hindsight, it's kinda funny.) Every race has "that guy". You know, the guy who gets lost and has to bushwhack 10 miles to find his way back to the trail. Or the guy who falls off the bridge into the water. Well, for this race, Don was "that guy". Word got around that some guy had fallen eight times...EIGHT TIMES! As we would talk to people on the trail, they would go "Oh, you're THAT GUY, the one who's fallen down eight times." Don's like, "Yeah, that's me. I'm going for the record." Loop 2 wasn't too bad, I had a rough spot at the Farside aid station and just had to slow down but other than that, it was pretty much 40 miles down. We refilled everything at the start/finish and took off, again a little faster than our fastest predicted time.

Loop 3 - The beginning of the end

The beginning of loop 3 was probably one of the worst times in the race for me, at least up to this point. It was beginning to get dark and I left the start/finish without putting on a long-sleeved shirt. I felt warm, but when the sun went down, I was quickly cooling off. The temperature never got very low. I don't think it got below about 58 degrees, but I started to get VERY cold. Now I'm usually the warm one, and Don is usually wrapped up like an Eskimo to keep warm. I was forced to walk for long stretches, but I knew that when I got to the Dam Road aid station, I had warm clothes in my drop bag. That was a tough damn 8 miles for me. By the time we got to the aid station, I was shivering uncontrollably. I got my insulating layers on and grabbed a cup of coffee to warm up. I was shivering so badly, that I couldn't keep the cup still enough to drink. I took off walking, now with a few more layers on, to try to generate some heat. I was able to drink most of the coffee and warmed up considerably within the next 20 minutes or so. We were both doing much better as we went through the next couple of aid stations. We made the turnaround at Farside and headed back to the Dam Road aid station. My heel had been working on starting a blister and Don had one forming under the ball of his right foot. We stopped for a minute to patch things at the Dam Road. I was able to completely fix my heel, but Don already had a nasty blister, so I patched it up, but it was definitely going to hurt for the remainder of the race. We were still keeping up a decent pace on the dirt roads of the course, but it was now dark and Don couldn't see the roots in the trail very good. A couple of nasty spills later, and he simply couldn't continue to run and fall on the roots. So we walked. We walked and were able to maintain a pretty good pace for the 8 miles or so to complete the 3rd loop. We headed back into the start/finish to reload, and Don detoured into the medical tent to get his worsening blister properly patched up.

Loop 4 - The Death March

After Don got his blister taken care of in the medical tent, we took off, again walking because of the root-filled trail. Now the medic did an admiral job on the blister, but every so often, when he stepped just right, I could hear Don wince in pain. That blister was going to be an issue. One of the side effects of having a minor injury, like a blister, is that your body does imperceptible things to your stride and gait to protect it. Before we left the start/finish, Don put on a knee brace of mine to stabilize his left knee that was bothering him, probably the result of the compensation from the blister. So off we go into the darkness for the 4th loop. We are still walking at a decent pace because of the roots, but it didn't take long before all of the walking started to take a toll.

I just assumed that if we trained to run a large part of the race, if need be, we could transition to walking and still finish, albeit slower. Well, after walking for about 20 miles, I was starting to feel a whole lot differently about that theory. You see, we had not specifically trained to walk for long periods of time, but due to trail conditions, that's what we found ourselves doing. After 20 miles, I can't describe how much pain I was in. My legs literally stopped working and I was reduced to making 6-inch steps to keep moving. I think it took us 4 hours, at least, to cover the last 10 miles of the 4th loop. Now, I'm no rocket scientist, but my math skills tell me that's walking really slowly. After what seemed like days, we came into the second-to-last aid station and turned in our chips. The pace that we were moving was not going to allow us to finish the last loop before the 30 hour cutoff, so we decided to just drop. Bummer.

So I walk/hobble over to the aid station volunteer who was recording times and the following conversation ensues:

V: "What's your number?"
S: "122, but don't bother writing down my time. I'm dropping."
V: "Oh-kay. I'll mark you down. Just turn in your chip when you get back to the Lodge."

/Silence then crickets chirping in the background/

S: "Can you drive me to the Lodge?"
V: "Well, I guess I can, but it's really close. It's walking distance."
S: "Hold on there, Chachi. EXACTLY how far is it? Walking distance for YOU and walking distance for ME are a hell of a lot different right now!"
V: "Right. Well, I think it's about 1/2 mile."
S: "A half a mile! Dude, it'll take me an hour to hobble that far. There had better be an aid station between here and there so I can rest."
V: "Ok. My truck's just around the corner."

So we hobble over to his truck and he takes us back to the Lodge, where we turn in our chips. Bummer.


"Run your own race" - You see this on all of the ultra websites and now I know why it's gospel. Everyone experiences ups and downs during the course of these races. A group of people trying to run together will all experience the downs at different times. By running together, you slow down, even if you have the energy to run. Every person in the group ends up having a crappier race than if they were to run separately. It's just the nature of the game. A better alternative is to have a pacer. Run with someone who is there to support you as their primary goal. It's too physically, mentally, and emotionally draining to be concerned with anyone but yourself after 50-60 miles of running. I believe that our biggest strategic mistake was to run together. There is still no guarantee that either of us would/could have finished, but we both would have ran better races/more distance if we had run according to our own energy levels.

Blisters...bad...very bad - At around mile 45, we both started feeling blisters forming. Don had one cooking under the ball of right foot, I had one starting on the back of my right heel. We both made the stupid mistake of running through the Dam Road aid station without attending to the hot spots. When we came back into Dam Road, we stopped to evaluate the damage. Don had a blister roughly the size of two half dollars under the ball of his foot. Ouch! I got lucky...mine was still only a hot spot and hadn't formed a full blister. I patched up Don's foot the best I could, but his was going to hurt no matter what I did because of the location and size of the blister. A Compeed patch on my heel and I was pain-free (at least that one spot didn't hurt) for the remainder of the race. The moral of the story is this...the things needed to fix a blister weight next to nothing. You should carry them with you. If you feel a hotspot forming, STOP! Fix it immediately. The worst case scenario in getting a blister is that you will DNF the race as a result. Best case scenario is that you still finish the race, but suffer immensely for many hours as a result. Both of those are easily avoidable by taking care of your feet.

Pace up front - We took the first two loops a little faster than we anticipated. I don't think that was a bad thing, Don disagrees. I understand that you can't push hard at first or you won't have the energy on the back end of the race. I don't think we pushed too hard. We walked the uphills and jogged the downhills and flats at a pace that was comfortable through 50 miles. I felt like I still had the energy to keep up that pace when we started to walk. At 60 miles, I still felt good, but the wheels started fall off pretty quickly from there. I think that walking mile 50 to 60 started the process of using muscles that had not been trained and was our ultimate downfall. You would think that training to run most of the distance would mean that if forced to walk the distance, you could. This experience changed my mind about that. I don't think you can. After walking for 30 miles, we we completely debilitated, reduced to taking 6-inch steps. My legs, literally stopped working, and I don't think it was the distance per se, but the continuous walking, for which we hadn't trained. My opinion is that once you are reduced to walking, the timer starts. You only have a certain amount of time before things go bad, very bad. I believe you must have covered as much distance as possible when that occurs. I don't think you should tear up the beginning of the course, I just don't think you should intentionally take it very slowly. Now I know that people finish races doing exactly what I'm saying not to do. Again, you must run your own race. It works for them, but I don't think that it works for me.

Once you slow down, you won't ever speed up again - Degradation happens. There is no getting around it. You will need to slow down or walk more as the race wears on. I think you've got to fight this as much as possible. Once you slow down, your body adjusts to the new level of effort and it hurts just as bad to go slower as it did to go faster 30 minutes ago. You might as well fight the good fight as long as possible and get your butt as close to the finish line as you can, while you can still maintain a quicker pace.

Leave the Hubris at home - I went into this race thinking we had a decent shot at doing it in 24 hours. That's probably equivalent to a 3:40 to 3:45 marathon. An easy time if you have talent, a tough goal for a no-talent-having shmuck like me. I was far too cocky and it bit me on the ass. I was mentally unprepared for how taxing the race would be toward the end. Just like in my first marathon (unreasonable goal of 3:40; coincidence...I think not) the soul-crushing difficulty of the latter part of the race was unexpected, but it shouldn't have been. I feel like the experience of having run both the marathon and 100 had prepared me for the tough final part of the race. I'll definitely do better next time, simply by knowing what lies ahead.

Anticipate the need for warmer clothing - It was a rookie mistake to skip the long-sleeved shirt when the sun went down. I was able to make it to my drop bag and get another shirt, but exposure for that length of time removes your ability to thermo-regulate, even in moderate temperatures. Better to have it, be too warm, and then tie it around your waist, then to not have it. The long-term goal is to run the Leadville 100. A mistake like that at Leadville practically guarantees a DNF, where conditions are much more conducive to developing race-ending, possibly life-threatening, hypothermia.


Food Intake - I typically have problems eating during these races, but I consumed all sorts of stuff that I normally have issues with. I was eating sandwiches of all kinds, hell, I even ate a greasy, meatloaf burrito-thing (Sounds terrible, but at the time, AWESOME). Eating when you are feeling like total crap has the ability to lift you up. I ate more than anticipated, but I still think that I could have used more calories.

Hydration - I felt like I was drinking as much as I could. And by some miracle, I was able to consume calorie-containing drinks exclusively. I didn't think it was possible to drink Gatorade for 21 hours straight, but I never lost the taste for it. I even continued drinking it for days after the race when I had many more choices about what to consume. That was good because it provided hydration, electrolytes, as well as additional calories.

Injinji Socks - I just can't say enough about these damn socks. 77 miles and NOT A SINGLE BLISTER. Now I did have one forming on the back of my heel, but that wasn't caused by the socks. I had a rough spot on my shoe that caused it. $12 is a fortune to spend on a pair of socks, but it's a drop in the bucket compared to what was spent to fly to the race, pay for hotel, rental car, etc. If you are going to play the game, use the right equipment. You can have my Injinjis when you pry them from my cold dead feet! (And if I'm not more careful with my clothing changes...that might be sooner than you think!)

Well, I'm not happy to have experienced my first DNF, but I'm trying to make the best of it by figuring out what happened and how I can keep it from happening again. I definitely feel like I'm much better prepared to be successful in the next one.

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