Monday, February 8, 2010

Rocky Raccoon 100 (a look into the mind of the crazy)

I've been called crazy many times for attempting long distance endurance races. There are few rare moments when "sane" people get to glimpse into the mind of the crazy to see just how they tick. "What makes a crazy person decide to run 100 miles," one might ask? And my answer to that is a divergence from the normal. I've always enjoyed running and not being very fast at it, I decided long ago that I would out last my competition rather than out sprint them. Five years ago I completed my first ultra marathon, the Rocky Raccoon 100, in Hunstville TX. Fast forward to the present and I'm still at it.
This year for my 4th attempt of the RR100, I asked a long time friend, Mike McLean, to join me for this epic race. He had been a great training/racing partner (not to mention friend) for years. Back in October when we signed up for the race I had high expectations for myself and I knew I could count on Mike for the support I needed to accomplish my goals. After month of training together and pushing each other, the big weekend had arrived. We left Madison, WI early on Friday morning and arrived in Dallas before noon. After a 2.5 hour drive we arrived in the wonderful city of Huntsville, TX. Known for it's delightful barb wire fenced spa and illustrious university, it made the perfect backdrop for an ultra marathon. We checked into our hotel and then headed to the store to pick up a few necessities (red bull, boost, batteries) that we needed for the next day. We then met up with a good friend of ours, Katrina, who luckily lived in Austin and graciously offered up her weekend to come babysit us pre/during/post race. After packing out race day bags we headed to the pre race pasta dinner to meet the other 360 "crazies." It is quite a diverse group of people you find doing races like this.
Lap 1: Race day morning came very early. I did not get much sleep the night before and was still tired when the alarm sounded at 4:15am. But, I hopped out of bed and threw on my running clothes. After a quick bite to eat we were headed to the state park where the race is held. The awesome thing about this park is the "Alligators exist in the park" sign the greets all the visitors, also adding to the cool factor of the race. We dropped off our final bag and made our way to the starting line but were caught in the back of the pack. As the starting gun fired there was a very slow lurch forward. People began to jog, walk down the trail but with so many runners the whole thing bottle necked and made it even more difficult to run. I tried to find clear openings and rushed past slower runners. I could hear the remarks as we ran by telling us to slow down. I appreciated their concern but trusted in my training that I knew what to do to reach my goal of 18 hours. The pace seemed deathly slow as we trudged through the first 3 miles at around 12-13min/mile pace. As the runners spread out and day light emerged we were able to pick up the pace quite a bit and ended up finishing our first lap in 3:21. This was a bit concerning for me as my previous best lap on this course from years past was a 3:35. But again I laid my faith in my training.
Lap 2: We started the second loop and my legs finally felt like their normal selves. When I'm out running on trails I feel like a puppy who gets let off his leash for the first time. All I want to do is run and my legs have this snappiness that is hard to explain in any other words. The pace was still fast but comfortable. Around mile 28-29 I separated from Mike as he had to use the bathroom, but around mile 32 I saw Mike running at me from the wrong direction. This caused me some distress because I wasn't sure what the problem was. As he approached I could hear him cursing his luck for missing a turn on the course that ended up adding about 4 miles to his day. This was a bummer and I hoped that Mike would be able to shake it off and continue. I knew the next few laps were critical to my race so I tried to keep my focus on the task at hand, and that was running fast. I finished my 2nd lap in 3:20. I was feeling pretty darn good at this point.
Lap 3: The sun was out in full force making it a bit hotter (not so fun) but allowing me to see excessive amount of tree roots that covered the trails. When the sun is up running is so much faster because you are able to pick your footing better so I used this to my advantage and upped the pace again hopping to cover as much distance as possible while it was light out and warm. I also had my iPod to look forward to once I got to mile 60. It is my treat to myself for running the first 60 without music. I finished lap 3 in 3:30. I had slowed a little but was still feeling strong.
Lap 4: It was still so early and I kept telling myself that my race still relied heavily on a strong 4th lap. I had originally planned on an 18 hour finish time but seeing how well the race was going, I changed my plan to 17:45 and was calculating what times I would need to run to accomplish that goal. With only a few hours of sunlight left I hurried off to get in as much of the trail as I could in the light. I made it about 13 miles before the darkness set in. I grabbed my headlamp but was happy to know that the most challenging portion of the race (most roots and hills) was past me and I had smooth sailing for the next 7 miles. I was running like a mad man trying to maintain the same pace I had been doing all day long. I finished my 4th lap in 3:25. Right where I needed to be. I thought to myself, I only need a 4:10 last lap to break 18 hours, "this should be easy." WRONG
Lap 5 (aka death march): I had been running steady throughout the day but knew that my final lap would be slower, mainly because of running with a headlamp you can't go as fast (you need to slow down to avoid those tree roots I'd mentioned earlier). Plus add in the fact that I'd already run 80 miles at just over 10min/mile and the normal tendency is to have a slower last 20 miles of the race, but I only guessed I'd slow by 20-30 min, giving me ample time to break 18 hours. As I approached mile 83 my stomach was getting tight. I got to the aid station and asked to sit down and see if it helped me feel better. I was getting nauseous and that was the last thing I wanted. I stood up a few minutes later in order to B-line it for the woods to throw up. Know I know this lap was really going to suck. I'd started to take some Red Bull a few miles back to help stay awake but I think it may have been the source of my demise. As I headed on my legs were getting heavier and my pace was slowing. I was walking more and more which frustrated me because I could see my goal time slipping away (it is probably one of the hardest things when you finally realize you won't be able to accomplish your goal). I kept pushing forward but my whole body was shutting down. My eyes were closing on me and I was fighting to stay awake as I stumbled down the trail. Even at this point I was still passing people which made me happy but the happiness was short lived as the pain of each step kept driving it away. When I finally made it to mile 93, I was so happy because of the majority of the last 7 miles were wider, more open trails where I could utilize me speed to make up for all the walking I had done earlier in the lap. I had to remind myself that I was only a few miles away and that I needed to "leave it on the course" if I was to even get close to my goal time. I made it to the wider trail and ran like a bear was chasing me. I was passing people left and right. I had little energy left to wish my fellow athletes well so I opted for thumbs up and heavy panting. I cruised to mile 96 but was again confronted with awful stomach cramps. I tried to bury the pain for just another 40-50 min I told myself. With only 4 miles left I knew it was now of never and I started to run fast-ish. I cranked out the last 4 miles barely stopping to walk up a two steep hills. I was hungry for the finish line. I crossed the tape in 18:16 ( a new PR for me) 15th overall, out of 360. I was elated for the race to be done. My last lap was very tough and took 4:35 to complete (over 1 hour longer than my next slowest).
Katrina helped get me to the car and we headed back to the hotel to clean up and go to bed. When we arrived at the hotel I was having some G.I. issues so I was seated on the toilet and fell asleep there for about 10-15min. I awoke only because my legs were cramping. I hopped in the shower but got nauseous again and threw up all over the shower. "Oh well, could have happened in a worse location," I thought and finished my shower. The long day was over and I was finally able to get the sleep I had wanted for the past 6 hours.
So there you have it. It is hard to explain why I do what I do. I was thinking the day after the race about how much it hurt and how could I have let myself sign up for another race again. But I have a short memory for pain and when I think of how rewarding and fun it is to be part of the ultra marathon community I begin to wonder what makes others so "crazy" to not want an experience like this in their lives. In a race like this, no athlete can be successful without a great support system. I'd like to send a big thank you to Mike for his friendship and support (a better guy is hard to find), Katrina for all her friendship and hard work making my seemingly difficult day much easier, my family for their endless support, my friends who are understanding and patient with all the long hours of training and racing and my sponsors (PowerBar and CycleOps) for their support to help me achieve my goals.