22:19 In The Mud With Superman And The Slug
The lead up to Rocky Raccoon was a Tale of Two Training Regimens. November and December were the best 2 months of running I've ever had. I had multiple runs in the 40-65 mile range, did my best tempo and interval work in years, and blew away my best mileage month in December (323). Run after run, I felt stronger and came into the Croom Zoom 100K looking to break 10 hours. But I fared poorly that day, faltering to an 11:08, sore legs, bruised feet, and damaged confidence. A week later I ran an 8 mile leg at the Long Haul 100 relay and immediately afterwards felt as if I had broken my foot. After doing some research, I was convinced I had the beginnings of a stress fracture and confined myself to the stationary bike and elliptical 2 weeks leading up to RR. To make things worse, I traveled for work, ate and drank too much, gained 5 lbs, and caught a nasty cold. I toed the line in Huntsville feeling poorly and not even sure my foot would hold up for a mile.
Race morning, I opened the door to the hotel room to put my bag in the car and rain was falling. In the 10 feet from door to car, I was wet. Just after I parked my car at Huntsville State Park, it began to really downpour. Summertime Florida thunderstorm downpour where you have trouble seeing the house across the street. The nightmare of the Guts Reactor Run a year ago all came flooding (literally) back to me. It rained the first 22 hours straight of that race, and it was 100 miles of mud. Recently relocated FUR, Andrea Risi was the only female finisher. We ran together, but I dropped after 60 miles (getting credit for a 50 mile finish); and I have not stopped hearing about it from her since. That was my 2nd straight 100M DNF, and I had to start considering whether I was cut out to go 100 miles consistently. I got some redemption a few months later finishing Massanutten in just over 32 hours of rocky hell. But now I was faced with GRR conditions all over again.
Mike Patterson running his first 100, Bill Zulas wisely in the 50, and I huddled under the start/finish tent out of the rain with several hundred other nervous runners. Hal Koerner who later won the race, Karl Metzler and other elites were somewhere up front. But I didn't care. It was raining. There would be mud. Can I do this? I had entered RR on the hopes of breaking 20 hours on a reputedly fast course. Now I wasn't even sure I wanted to start.
Rocky Raccoon is a 20 mile loop with two multiple mile sections where runners pass going both directions. The first 3.1 miles to the Nature Center are the easiest section of the course, and I consistently made better times through here. I felt great,and my foot didn't hurt in the least. But now the thunder and lightning started, and water started to collect on the course. Even with a slow start fighting the crowd at the beginning, I made the second aid station, Dam Nation (6.2 miles) in 69 minutes, almost dead on my goal pace. From there, it is a 6 mile mini-loop returning back to Dam Nation 12.2 miles in and I continued to run strong despite the rain.
It was 3.4 miles to the last aid station, Park Road, and the first 1.5 miles of that was one of the sections where runners pass both directions. We started seeing the 50 milers who started one hour later coming the other way. As we passed through one particularly muddy section, I heard another runner comment, I wonder what this will look like after everyone comes through here a couple times. I quickly did the math in my head. 300 hundred milers would come through 10 times each. 450 fifty milers would come through 6 times each. Even with DNFs, there would be close to 5,000 passes through this section. Uh-Oh.
I made it to Park Road a couple minutes ahead of pace and told myself to back down. I needed to average 4 hour loops for a 20 hour finish. The plan was to bank a few minutes by running the first 3 loops in 3:45ish time, and absolutely nothing faster than 3:40. But by this time, I was being passed by 50 milers only slightly faster than me, and I let myself get pulled along too fast. I finished loop 1 in 3:35, irritated at the lack of self discipline. I took a much needed bath room break and headed back out.
The rain had stopped about 3 1/2 hours into the race, and I started loop 2 with high hopes. The muddiest sections had not gotten much worse with the first rounds of traffic, and much of the course was slick but not squishy. The course was every bit as rooty as I had been warned, but I was navigating that just fine. No sooner did I commend myself for that, I toe-hooked, face planted and banged up my knee. Two runners behind me stopped to help, but I jumped up, pissed, and sprinted away.
Then the real fun started. The forecast had been for showers in the morning, clearing away by midday. When the rain had stopped at 9:30, I was sure that was it, and the course would hold up. But around noon it rained again, steady, for maybe 2 hours. That was it, Huntsville State Park was saturated. This round of rain stayed where it fell: on the trail. The muddy sections started to look like cow pens with ankle-deep, shoe-sucking mud. New trails started to get carved out in the brush by runners trying to circumvent the worst of it. Later in the race, those were foot-deep chasms of hell and you were better off plowing straight down the middle of the mess. Uphills became treacherous, with every footfall followed by a small backwards slide. More on the downhills later.
While I have always preferred point to point runs, I having a growing affinity for loop runs like Ancient Oaks or Croom Zoom. There is something to be said for repeating a track, getting comfortable with it, and being able to plan when to push, and when to conserve. I learned as the race went along to make time in the first 6.2 miles, try not to struggle killing myself pushing through the 6 mile Dam Nation loop, and then hold easy down the home stretch. I finished loop 2 in 3:44 and comfortably on track. But my quads felts like I had 80 miles in them, not 40. I assumed it was lack of running the past several weeks and I could push through it as the race went along.
Lap 3 got no better though. The rain had stopped, but the course was soaked. There were no dry patches left. Most of the course was still runnable, but the going was more tricky, and the bad patches were a real kick in the teeth each time you passed through. I took another ugly fall but escaped any real damage. My supposed foot injury had never resurfaced, but the balls of both feet were beginning to hurt. I finished the third lap in 3:59 and opted for a sock and shoe change. The shoes I was wearing were caked in mud and probably weighed triple their norm. With the pain in my feet, I was worried I would find blisters, after 11 hours of wet running. But to my delight, they were unmarred. I had experimented at GRR with rubbing vaseline all over my feet before that wet run, and it worked. Something about the lubrication, or the water sealant seems to prevent blisters, it has worked to perfection each time.
I also changed my shirt, grabbed my lights as darkness was not far away, and set out on lap 4 recalibrating my goals. After giving back almost 15 minutes with the wardrobe change, I had finished 60 miles with 20 minutes in the bank against a 20 hour finish. But my legs were far more tired than they should be, and I knew it was a stretch. I decided to ease back and just take what the course would give me. You can't control race conditions, and if 20 hours was not in the cards, then so be it. I had my headphones on, and just relaxed with my playlists. (Side note: Every race seems to be different in terms of socialization. Some races, I seem to run chatting away in small groups for miles at a time. Other races, by chance, you team up with a runner of similar pace and run dozens of miles sharing running tips and life histories. Maybe it was the rain, but this was a race where I did very little talking. I think the longest stretch I ran with another runner talking was 100 feet.)
I am still amazed at the highs and lows that occur in ultras. One minute, you are running along, feeling great, thinking forward about how after this performance, you a going to step up your training and figure out how to beat Anton Krupicka. Not longer after, it is tears and shame. Why do I hurt so much? Why am I out here in the middle of the damn night? Why do I even run? This sucks. I am not very good at this. That is it, next aid station, I am turning in my timing chip. Not long after, the pain has subsided, the stride has returned, the pace is good, and I am pretty sure that guy just ahead that I am reeling in is Anton. Superman to Slug and back again in minutes, repeatedly through the race. I can bank on it every time. Every time it happens, I look down at my left wrist and my Allie Matthews crafted "Don't Quit Andy2" bracelet and keep going. Even if it means walking for 30 seconds, 5 minutes, or an hour, that phone booth containing an outfit with a red cape and the big "S" on the chest is waiting just around the next corner of the trail. Outside of the pure joy of the running itself, I think it is repeating that thought pattern and being able to carry over the same thinking in my real world life, be it work or family issues, that keeps me coming back to these races.The perseverance (my father's favorite word) it has taught me has made me a stronger person (although some close friends might call that a relative statement) and better at many other things. If I was reading a resume and saw "ultrarunnr" or "endurance athlete", I would consider skipping the interview and jumping to "You're hired."
With my adjusted goals, and a "low 20-something" finish, I figured I needed to be at Dam Nation in about 85 minutes. So of course I got there in something like 75. What? Maybe the shoe change was all I had needed. My feet were muddy again, but felt better. Clark Kent grabbed his calculator and started doing the math on salvaging a 19:59 finish. I HAD this. The first half of the Dam Nation loop is a long straightaway of longish uphills and downhills with little flat running. The first half is more climbing and I powered up the inclines on rejuvenated legs. The second half is more downhills, and I took every risk I could on the slick trail, pounding down the slope. By the time I made the turn, my quads were screaming. I looked at my watch, and I had lost several minutes. How could I work so hard and lose time again? Dejected, I reeled back in again, plodding back the other way, leaving a slime trail behind.
By now, my feet hurt as bad as my quads, and couldn't understand why. After the race, Mike told me he dropped at 80 miles because his feet hurt too badly. He looked great each time I saw him, and still had a legitimate shot at breaking 30 hours when he dropped. But knowing how my feet felt, I understand why he did. Looking back, I think I figured it out. Normally, if given the option, I avoid stepping on roots in favor of the softer surface of dirt or sand. But with all the rain, the downhills we treacherous if you stepped too heavily and the ground gave way (which it did each time). I think I subconsciously began striking with the ball of my foot on roots to get surer footing. Taking your full body weight coming downhill, landing on a hard (and not flat or broad like a rock) surface took its toll.
I trudged in lap 4 in 4:59. 20 hours was out of reach, 21 hours was a long shot. I would need a miraculous recovery just to get 22. But I rushed through the turn, grabbing some warmer clothes and headed out. I did NOT want to drop at 80 miles. I could remember every instance of the last year of A3 telling me she was a 'tough mudder', and I was not (and there were many). I could hear A1 comparing his hundred mile finishing rate to mine, in a not so gracious fashion. I could hear Patrick chirping at my shortcomings, just for the fun of it. And I could hear Sandra (my wife) asking, "Why the hell do you even do this to yourself?" No, back on the course I went.
16:40 in, 20 miles to go. I walked for a bit to decide my goals. I figured I could walk the entire loop and still get a 24 hour buckle. I could blister it in and try to break 22. I compromised, and decided to run-walk it in for something in the low 22s. I wanted to finish in time to get enough sleep before Super Bowl Sunday. Not too much later, I arrived at Dam Nation way ahead of pace. I had passed numerous people walking who complimented me for finishing strong. With that encouragement I ran faster, but I could feel that damn cape tugging behind me. OK, seems like I've recovered and can hear the finish calling. Let's push this along, and break 21. And for the 4th consecutive loop, that back section did me in.
My feet were killing me now. With 8 miles to go, I started the dreaded death march. I ran a couple times for 50 or 100 feet, but the feet and the quads resisted. It hadn't rained in almost 12 hours, but the muddy patches had become horrific. Now the math in my head became self torture. With the wet conditions, my strides were shorter, I was probably taking 2,000 steps per mile. With 6 miles to go, I wondered if I could take 12,000 more impacts like that. With 5 miles to go I was getting cold. The temperature had dropped to around 40, it was humid, and the wind had begun to blow. With all the walking, I had long stopped sweating my body temperature was falling, and I was shivering. I briefly flirted with dropping at the last aid station, but realized the walk to the finish and my car was not much longer on the trail. The slug lounged in the relative warmth of the Park Road aid station for several minutes eating blueberries and wallowing in its mucus trail. But I looked at the food table, saw a salt shaker next to the potatoes, caught a fright (my apologies to all those who don't understand that reference and never experienced the stupid and childish redneck joy of slugs and salt) and headed out for the final stretch.
With 2 miles to go, I came to the flat easy section along the lake determined to trot this one section. And I walked. I climbed the last hill knowing I could still trot the last 1/2 mile in. And I walked. I turned the last corner determined to trot those last hundred yards looking good at the finish. And I walked. Straight through the finish line, under the tent, and down into a chair next to the heater. I was shivering pretty good and it took a while before I could stop. Fortunately, Mike, his sister, and Bill were all there waiting and supportive. I soon had blankets, soup, my drop bag, and most importantly, the buckle. They went and got my rental car for far away in the parking lot, pulled it up close, and 2 people walked me to it.
I went to Huntsville to break 20 hours and missed by 2:19. Writing this now, 36 hours removed from the race, I won't complain. Despite missing one immediate goal, I have several positive takeaways. 376 runners started the 100, 219 finished, and I was 48th. I am now 6 for 8 in hundred mile finishes. Along with last year's Massanutten, I am qualified to enter the Mont Blanc lottery for 2013. No one can control or predict race day conditions (although I am actively searching the Saharan race calendar now), and I had about as good a performance as I could have expected all things considered. RR is an outstanding race. Joe Prusiatis is an excellent RD, the volunteers were wonderful, and it was exceptionally well organized, especially considering they had 750 runners out there. I will likely go back at some point to take another shot at 19:xx. Most importantly, whatever was wrong with my foot leading up to the race seems to be completely gone. I come away with no injuries, no blisters, and renewed confidence. Maybe not in my ability to run fast, but at least in my ability to persevere. Next up, a couple easy weeks of recovery on the bike and in the pool, and the gearing up for Dances With Dirt followed by the Fool's Run.