It was only a week ago that I knew for sure that I would be running the Rocky Raccoon 100 in Huntsville, TX on February 6th. Without a contract position for the previous month, I had made a vow not to sign up for any new races until I got a new job. Fortunately, after searching and praying, I got the call I was waiting for a week and a half ago. I landed a 12 month contract at a medical device manufacturer here in the Bay Area, freeing me financially to spend some money on the entry fee for Rocky. I used miles for the flight, got a good deal on the rental car and planned to bring a sleeping bag to sleep in at Huntsville State Park where the race would be held. It would be the ultimate "travel race on a budget".
For me, one of the big drivers behind doing Rocky was the opportunity to do a 100 miler 4.5 months out from Western States. After investigating other potential 100 milers in the February/March timeframe in the Western region, the only other possibility was a rugged, mountainous Coyote Two Moon. In the end, I didn’t want to risk running a more intense race with more climbing than running. I simply wanted the experience of running into the night with that level of fatigue you cannot duplicate in any other type of training setting or race. Rocky has a reputation as a faster 100 miler with no super serious climbs, although the course redesign in 2008 replaced some of the straightaways that allowed runners to pick up good heads of steam with constantly twisting and turning single-track trails. It’s 5 - 20 mile loop format makes it a good choice for someone like myself who would be coming without the help of a crew or pacer as far as been able to organize my supplies efficiently and effectively measure my ability to hold pace throughout the race.
With the conditions mostly dry, save for a few nice sized mud pools, I expected the course to play out similarly to last year when just a shade under 16 hours took home the prize. The weather would be 15 degrees colder, with highs in the 50s and lows in the 30s.
I went into the race with a rather simple pacing plan to do the first lap in 3 hours and add 10 minutes to each additional lap. This would put me with a finish of 16:40:00, which I thought would probably be good enough to at least be in the Top 5. It would help me to focus on staying strong through the end of the race, particularly when the mental games can start wrecking havoc. It was also a goal that wouldn’t wreck my legs or prevent from recovering quickly enough to continue training well the following week.
The one variable in this plan was how I was going to do without a Garmin. I had chosen to leave the Garmin at home and instead focus on my perceived effort and pacing off of other runners. Knowing that Jamie Donaldson would be at Rocky and that her effort last year had gotten here a sub-16:50 finish, I was determined to loosely use her as a gauge for whether I was going relatively too fast or too slow. One of my past failings at Rocky has been going out too fast and not focusing on a running a more consistent race. While I’m certainly not alone in this failing considering how easy it is to get sucked into everyone else’s race on this course, I need to continue to become a better tactical runner to maximize my performance. As a 2:51 marathoner, I don’t have the speed to win a 100 miler (the ultimate goal) by running as fast as I can for as long as I can and then expect to survive the resulting blowup. I need to rely more on my strength and endurance to stay in a race until hopefully surging late to create separation. I didn’t need to break 16 hours here as much as I needed to run a good race that would give me the confidence that I am on track for the Miwok 100k and then ultimately Western States.
After flying into Houston on Friday afternoon, I made my way to Huntsville where I went to Chili’s and enjoyed the dinner of champions: Chicken Tacos, Black Beans and Rice. With the carbo-loading process completed days before the race, I’ve always taken liberties the night before to have a meal I enjoy. One of the waiters at the bar, noticing my track jacket, correctly surmised that I was there for “the race”. He and the bartender took turns expressing their own desires to run a marathon, which I wholeheartedly endorsed.
After a restless night of sleep moving between my rental car (VW Beetle) and the concrete floor of an acquaintence’s camping area, I finally awoke for good at 4:30 in the morning on race day. I didn’t feel particularly good, but I wasn’t overly groggy which is a good thing given my normal disdain for waking up early in the morning. I spent the next 90 minutes prior to the race start getting my supply bags in order and positioned next to the outbound (right-hand) side of the trail at the race headquarters’ aid station. I would visit here once every 20 miles and each plastic bag of 6 Chocolate Outrage GUs and 6 NUUN electrolyte tablets had enough for a 3-3.5 hour loop.
My setup was designed allow me to save time by not having to rummage through my bag and think about what I needed. While I could have chosen to go with the offerings at each of the aid stations, GU and NUUN have become my staples at long races helping to keep my stomach at bay. A major reason for my increased success over the past 7-8 months is clearly due to simplifying my nutrition and these two nutritional supplements are a big part of that.
After some quick photos and chatting with friends, we were off at 6:00 A.M. With a forecasted high temperature in the 50s, I chose to go with a black technical top and a black base layer underneath it. Combined with my dark blue cap, black shorts, black compression tights and black over-the-calf Injinji compression socks, I decided to go with the “Jedi Knight” look. If anything, it certainly made my white Brooks racing flats stand out.
Right away, I settled into a large pack of runners upfront. I quickly found my light to have a less than ideal luminescence and after a mile and a half of running mostly in my own dark bubble, I slowed to allow the next runner to pass me so that I could supplement my light with their light. That runner turned out to be Jamie Donaldson, which pleased me considering that I was somewhat using her pace for this race as a baseline for my own race.
Along with a few other folks, we began trading positions back and forth depending upon time at the aid stations as well as moving a little faster or slower through certain sections. Once the light shone through for good 45 minutes after the start, I pulled ahead of the pack through the second aid station. Intermittently, I looked back to make sure I wasn’t trying to pull away too hard from the pack. Eventually they would catch up to me just after the Park Road aid station with 4.4 miles to go in the 1st loop. At that point, I made it a goal to get passed by at least one more runner before making it back to the start/finish area. This was a goal that I implemented first at the Javelina 100 last Halloween with the intention of disciplining myself to simply relax and not allow the emotional adrenaline that surges this early to push my body beyond that which would be good for me. Not only did I achieve that goal, but I exceeded it with at least a few runners scooting by me including Jamie.
I finished the first loop in just under 2:50 which was a little faster than the 2:55-3:00 loop I had envisioned. But, I wasn’t about to give the time back and instead focused on keeping close to a 3:10 second loop. I estimated that I was probably in 13th-15th place, which was just fine by me considering my overall time. The first 20 miles was about setting a tempo; the next 20 miles would be about maintaining that tempo. After a 3 minute break to get my nutritional supplies together, I quickly headed back on out.
Usually, I would’ve discarded the base layer with daylight now upon us. But, in keeping with the theme of simplification, I was intent on finishing in these clothes barring a major fall into one of the black mud pits scattered throughout the course. The weather was still rather comfortable and the second loop passed without much fanfare. A 3:10 loop translates into an average pace of 9:30 min./mile which, while rather unspectacular, was a pace that I continued to match or exceed between each aid station. I knew the distances between each station and used my stop watch to give myself an estimate of the average pace to that station. As long as I was able to match it, I would simply move on to calculating my time to the next station. This would be a race of small battles and if I could “win” a majority of them, I could expect to come out of this with a good time and placing.
While the theme for the second 20 miles was to simply maintain position, I quickly found myself passing quite a few people who were fading back. Each aid station brought with it the pleasant surprise that I was continuing to exceed the 9:30 min./mile for each section. I wasn’t exceeding it by more than 15-20 seconds at a time, but it was consistent. With the music playing, my body and mind were moving in rythym and the miles seemed to go by without much hard effort. I had moved ahead of Jamie earlier in this loop and was continuing to play leap frog with her as we both moved up the general classification. I saw a few people I knew, including the Jimmy Dean Freeman and the Coury brothers (the young race directors, Javelina Jundred) who were moving along at a brisk pace themselves. One of the nice features of this course is the opportunity to see other runners on the way out to start a loop as they are finishing.
At one point, I was in 6th or 7th place by my estimates since there was no clear, definitive answer from the aid station volunteers. It was rather early to be moving that high up the GC, which I had preferred to see happen in the 3rd loop. Nevertheless, I was pleased with continuing to stay at a healthy pace while always near my Badwater buddy Jamie. I would ultimately yield a couple positions in the final 4.4 mile section before hitting the start/finish area again at the 5:57 mark. Although I ultimately dropped a place in the GC, I was nevertheless right on target. Including the 3 minute break at the start, I had taken 3:07 for this second loop which was right where I wanted to be. I was continuing to feel good as far as my stomach was concerned, although a dull pain in my right knee was beginning to become an annoyance.
I got an unexpected boost at the start/finish area when Alan Gehraldi, a fellow Bay Area resident and Badwater veteran, offered to help me get my water bottle filled and prepped with NUUN. I took the opportunity to pack up with more GUs and switching out to another iPod shuffle. While the aid station volunteers could have probably helped me as well, having Alan there to do it gave me that added assurance that I had one less thing to worry about. Jamie came in a couple of minutes after me and left after a quick 20 second meeting with her husband David at the turnaround sign directly in front of me.
After taking an extra minute to relax and get my head together, I would start my third loop at the 6:02 mark looking to maintain a 10 min./mile pace and a 3:20 loop. About a mile after I headed out, I looked at the pouch on my water bottle realizing that I did not have my NUUN tablets for this 20 mile loop. There wasn't any time to go back to the aid station; I was resigned to the fact that I would have to go on and simply take whatever electrolyte drink they serve at the aid stations.
When I reached the first aid station 3.1 miles away, I took a seat for a minute while the aid station volunteers filled my water bottle with what I learned was Gatorade and fetched me a couple of acetametaphin. The acetametaphin was an attempt to kill the soreness that was creeping into my right knee and both calves. As opposed to ibuprofren, which has been linked to kidney damage, acetametaphin is generally safe as long as their's food in the stomach to act as a buffer. For some reason though, I didn't think to ask about the Gatorade. Although I was weary about the taste or long term effectiveness, I assumed it was Gatorade Endurance with little or no calories. Either way, I just hoped there were enough electrolytes to keep my body going well.
While the acetametaphin slowly kicked in, I continued onward at a brisk sub-10 minute mile running pace. My legs definitely didn't feel fresh, but I continued to pick up my legs well and avoid any potential obstacles or pitfalls. I would use the extra time to take short walking breaks leaving each aid station in order to keep my legs loose. At the next aid station, Dam Road, 3.1 miles away, I finally learned that it was regular Gatorade and not Gatorade Endurance. I knew Gatorade had less electrolytes but also over 100 calories for every 20 oz. bottle. I would have to adjust my GU intake down to approximately 1 GU per hour instead of the 2 GU per hour that I had originally calculated. I continued to add in banana and orange slices at each aid station to supplement my diet and help keep my stomach in check.
While finishing off the Dam Road loop to come through a second time, my GU packet didn’t go down right out on the trail, causing a bit of a gag while pausing briefly before swallowing it with a swig of Gatorade. While a seemingly minor inconvenience, the relative lack of stomach fortitude did not go unnoticed. Later, as I was coming back into Dam Road, the light headedness and slouched running posture that accompanies an electrolyte deficiency started to set in. I wasn’t upright or strong in my running; instead, I was lethargic and lazy with my foot strikes.
Electrolyte deficiency is a subtle condition, often coming on slowly. At first, you often feel like you can simply run through it and it will simply get better. It simply feels like the physical fatigue you’d expect later in a race. Then, all of the sudden, your stomach goes south fast and you find your body in a freefall. I tried to take in an additional cup full of Gatorade along with more banana slices and a piece of PB&J, but still felt somewhat out of it. The last looping section back to Dam Road had left me lacking with only one water bottle full of Gatorade to take in. With the next section only 3.4 miles, if I took my time and drank a full 20 oz of Gatorade, I'd figured I could start to right the ship.
That process of righting the ship took a little longer than I thought, lasting all the way back to the start/finish area. Those 7.8 miles total weren’t a grind, but the biggest difference was the lack of spring in my legs when going up some of the gradual uphills. Keep in mind that these are probably only 50 to 200 ft. in height, but the slight cramping from lack of electrolytes that cause muscles to contract and tighten wasn’t allowing my muscles to absorb energy in order to “spring” my body forward with any authority. In order to focus on my running, I found myself praying with more frequency and shutting off my iPod which was cluttering my mind with too much noise.
I was a bit surprised that I was able to continue staying just below 10 min./mile for my running pace. For this final 7.8 miles to the start/finish area, I started paying less attention to my overall pace and focused more on drinking in regular intervals. The back and forth with other runners also continued, athough I didn't believe I lost any placing. Incredibly, I actually moved up the GC from 13th to 10th position, highlighting how much of this sport is about consistent effort rather than running like a banchee. Upon my arrival to the start/finish area at the 9:19 mark, I could tell in Alan's eyes that he noticed my deteriorated condition. He moved quickly to get my water bottle prepped with water and NUUN while I took a seat on a camping chair next to the outbound path. The two previous years, this upcoming 4th loop had been my undoing. I just didn’t have the energy, physical strength or internal fortitude to see it through. This time, although I didn’t feel great, I didn’t feel bad either. I was definitely very “into it” at this point. I had just had a 3:22 3rd loop including that 5 minute break after the 2nd loop. I was also running pretty much according to plan with a small 11 minute cushion built upon the speed of the 1st loop.
Once Alan was done with the bottle, he also got me a cup of chicken noodles with broth and some bananas. I drank the broth, which was loaded with salts and ate the banana pieces for an added dose of potassium. While I originally intended this break to last 5 minutes became 7 minutes by the time I starting walking back into the great unknown. If there was anything to fear, it was whether I was going to melt down again. Memories are a powerful thing, but here was an opportunity to look beyond them. It was not lost on me that I had the chance to write a new, better chapter. It was 2010 after all. As I was praying for myself, I even had people back home praying for me and my stomach. We were calling on a little divine intervention to supplement the desires of my heart.
With this new energy, I started methodically rattling off the miles on my 4th loop. While my stomach seemed to recovering nicely with each gulp of NUUN water, my legs continued to feel sluggish. The toll was considerably noticeable in my calves going downhill in sections that at first seemed to breeze on by. Each application of my “brakes” brought with it an intense pain in my calves and left knee. Having taken two ibuprofren earlier in the race, I started contemplating when it might be appropriate to take two more.
I reached the 66.2 mile mark at Dam Road at a sub-10:30 min./mile pace and continued to remain on target. I worried less and less about who was in front or behind me, partly because I wasn't exactly feeling confident that I would make a surge. During the ensuing 6 mile loop back to Dam Road, I made my first acquaintence with Greg Stofka. It was first real conversation with another runner since early in the race. Greg and I traded stories over the next few miles until getting back to Dam Road. Greg was faster than I was on the downhill sections and I moved quicker on the uphill sections. We were both feeling the strain of the miles beginning to bear down, athough he had a little big bigger problem figuring out what to do about his blisters. I suggested he stop to put some NuSkin on his wound, although he seemed resolved that he could make it through to the end even with the blisters popped.
We both relished in the sight of the half mile straightaway leading to the Dam Road aid station in the distance. With the terrain slightly uphill, I surged ahead to make it into the aid station ahead of him. While I stopped to sit on a camping chair and wait for some ibuprofren tablets, Greg would leave a half a minute ahead of me. I continued to trudge on with the hope that ibuprofren would kick in soon and relieve the pain and swelling.
Not more than a half-mile down the road, I heard a familiar voice say "Jonathan". It was Nick Coury along with his older brother Jamil. It was nice to see another familiar face, although it also meant that I had most likely dropped out of the top 10 to 12th (or so I thought). Considering how strong they are with excellent finishes at the Hardrock 100 and marathon times under 2:50, I didn't expect to see much of them again. After exchanging pleasantries, they moved along ahead of me on a 1.5 mile single-track section. This exchange would ultimately become a major turning point in the race.
After finishing the slog along this single-track section, the course opens up on a fire road for over a mile towards the next aid station. Stuck in 11th place, I began this section on the fire road by walking a sharp 100 ft. long uphill. I had spent the previous 1.5 miles sulking a bit with the thought that once again had I let a great finish slip through my fingers. Within the past 2 miles, I had watched 3 fellow runners pass with with many more almost assuredly awaiting me.
At the top of the hill, I found the strength to begin jogging on the down and towards the flat. It wasn't much of a run, but gravity seemed to pull my legs along helping me begin to overcome the inertia that was keeping my legs stuck in neutral. Once on the flat, I started slowly increasing the speed as my legs allowed. No longer was the pain I felt only a few miles before overwhelming my mind. Maybe it was the ibuprofren kicking in? Maybe I decided that finishing top 10 meant too much to me? Maybe, considering the cyclical nature of a race like this, it was just my time to feel better? In a race like this, there was very little time to consider the reason I felt better. I just knew that it was time to roll with it.
Off I went, determined to make up the time and placing I had lost. Not more than a half mile up the road, I saw Greg up ahead. With less than 5 miles to go until the start/finish area, I caught Greg and we smiled at each other with grins on our faces while wishing each other well. After that, I was off "like a rocket". Each passing mile brought with it the joy that I was indeed running again and my energy level helped me keep me moving well.
Continuing to drink generously, I continued to pass other runners on the their 3rd loops while encouraging them to continue going strong. I passed the Park Road aid station with 4.4 miles to the start/finish area at just before the 12:20 mark as the sunlight faded away. I switched on my headlamp with my cap turned backward and hustled towards the end of the loop. Fire road became winding single-track which once again opened up to two-wide traffic. With less than a mile to go, I saw two headlights bouncing just ahead. It was the Coury brothers. I was in a chipper mood again, engaging them in a brief conversation about the fast-filling Javelina 100 in late October which they were directing. After a minute, I started to pull away from them before the trail quickly opened up to a clearing leading across a road and 0.1 more miles to the start/finish area.
After coming across the line together at the 13:05 mark, I quickly slipped over to a camping chair next to my supplies where Alan quickly met me to take care of filling my water bottle with water and NUUN. I sensed an opportunity to move out ahead of the Coury brothers by making this final major pit stop as quickly as possible. After loading up on 7 Chocolate GUs in my various pockets, I left in 2 minutes flat which was my quickest stop at the start/finish area yet. I didn't announce my departure in any way, shape or form. I simply slipped out quickly, hoping to go unnoticed.
Thus began what quite frankly was the most on-edge final 20 miles of a race that I've ever run. Throughout a 100 mile race, there are several gears you'll physically use. Most runners will operate between 1st and 3rd gear, slowly and steadily clicking off miles. Some will venture into 4th gear and a few select runners may crank it into 5th gear. While not always sustainable for long periods, 5th gear can be exciting and often kicks in when a finish line is near.
There is one gear that is not always used, but extremely effective for runners: the Fear Gear. While it's often brought out by runners pursuing from behind, it can also manifest itself when fear of losing a particular finishing time comes upon a runner. It is to long distance running what Nitrous Oxide is to street racing; the ultimate short term adrenaline shot tapping into our deepest competitive desires. While there are no universal rules governing its use or appearance, the Fear Gear can more succinctly be put as the fear of what is lurking in the shadows or the distance.
What added to my own anxieties as I kicked it into Fear Gear was the topography of the course. Because of the tree cover overhead and the endless twisting and turning that accompanies a good majority of the course, it becomes almost impossible to tell if anyone's coming up on you or you on them. You have no clue whether someone is on their 4th lap or 5th lap until you actually come up along side of them. The only thing you can do is simply put your head down and run. The first 3 miles went effortlessly, moving at a brisk 9:45 min./mile pace. But as the miles went by, the pace slowed frustratingly. This course plays out much differently at night, with the inordinate number of roots which litter the trails now shrouded in darkness. Even with a light, the course as well as fatigued legs demand that you slow down to ensure firm footing.
I kept finding that through each aid station, I would need the abbreviated rest afforded when volunteers would fill up my water bottles. Once they were done, I was immediately gone for fear that maybe in the moment the Coury brothers or anyone else for that matter would simply stroll on by.
15 miles to go, 10 miles to go. I was solely focused on the next aid station ahead. Each passing minute was a minute closer to the end. Soreness kept returning and and with each mile, a new twitch or pain appeared. Right calf, left calf, right knee, etc. To me, it became inevitable the someone, heck anyone would be pulling up along side me any minute.
With 7.8 miles to go, I had 88 minutes to go to try to slip under 17 hours. I tried to focus solely on the time goal to distract myself from the coming competitors. But with each straightaway or segment of trail, not a light behind me seemed to be closing in. Even when I was hitting 11 min/mile to 12 min./mile pace, there was no one out there except for those on their 4th loop that I was passing in front of me. When I got to the final aid station with 4.4 miles to go and 44 minutes to go under 17 hours, I kind of took off. The effort felt like I a lot, but in reality I was probably struggling even to keep 12 min./mile pace, While that's pedestrian in a road marathon, the effort to sustain that after 96 miles on the legs can feel downright painful.
My calves twinged after spending the duration of the race in racing flats which now had their tread flapping off the back of the shoes. It was go time and the only thing on my mind was the pain in my legs and simply ending this thing. Every half mile, I would peak back, see lights and shrug. Was it the Coury brothers? Was it Greg? Was it someone else? At that point, I wanted to leave this long straightaway section and get back to the single-track trail for the final 2.5 miles. If they only knew that I was out there right in front of them for the taking, then maybe they'd sprint past. But the shadows and lights in the distance would not move fast enough. With 1.5 miles to go, I passed a group of spectators who had camped out next the trail all day long. I smiled dimly, working harder and harder to get to those last set of open straightaways. 30 seconds later, I heard a yell go up behind me. They were close; really close.
But they would get no closer as I barreled down the trail, eventually crossing a road with the bright lights of the finish line in front of me 200 ft. away. After one more quick look back, I broke out a smile before finally raising my hands and crossing in 17 hours, 8 minutes and 4 seconds. It was over and I had a new PR for the course, 7th overall and 5th Male which got me an interesting Texas Fire Ant trophy. It was a nice day and a good run; I can't ask God for much more.
After a couple minutes trying to right myself with the help of volunteers, I was quickly let to a heated tent to sit down and unwind. A minute later, I learned the Coury brothers had crossed the finish line. We would later sit around the heater in the tent, along with a few others, trading stories about the race that was as well as other races we've done before. Jamie ended up scooting in at 16:54, one spot ahead of me in 6th place overall, 2nd woman. While she was a little less than 14 minutes ahead of me, she might as well have been on a different planet out in that darkness. Nick and Jamil never did know whether I was ahead or behind them because they had never seen me leave on my 5th loop. I asked them if that sound of cheering I heard behind me at the end was for them, but we never could tell. Greg's blisters ultimately led to his relative undoing, coming in overall in 17:55:57. Jimmy Dean Freeman, would had spent most of the day trying to patiently grind out 3:10 loops, would finish in 17:34:26. A couple others would ultimately join in with war stories of their own, turning our heated (I used that term liberaly) tent into a roundtable of wounded, sore-as-heck runners telling stories about the "glory day". It amazes me how inextricably our experiences were linked in the midst of a race where holding a conversation with another runner for more than half a minute was a rarity.
As for me, there's no more time left to look back at this race. Fear led to urgency which led to action; it is a powerful thing. Fear of the past can be an even more powerful thing. But the past is the past for a reason: because it already happened. What happens now in 2010 is what I have to work with. I need to look ahead, to the Lake Sonoma 50, the Miwok 100k and the Western States 100. I need to keep my eyes on the prize and that prize keeps getting bigger every day. If anything, I made a statement to myself that the best is yet to come.
Here's a small tribute to the greatest quarterback ever in light of the recent superbowl: