The trip & pre-race
The entire trip to Houston was almost a game-time decision, since Ben’s knee had been bothering him for a few weeks. Fast-forward to our arrival in Texas. We made it down, narrowly escaped some snowy Indiana weather, and went to pick up Ben’s race packet at the Huntsville State Park lodge. Walking through the door, I noticed a lonely table in the back of the space with a sign marked “Late Registration,” and a stack of 2013 Rocky Raccoon paper entry forms next to it. Sure enough, they were allowing late registration to this filled-and-closed-out event! Cash or check only. Add one quick run (ok, not literally) to nearby town of Huntsville, TX, and we had enough cash to pay for me to sneak into the 50 miler the next day. Score*!
*Bonus: My assigned bib number was 884— Obvious sign that it was going to be a good one.
The great part about heading to Houston for the weekend is that I got to see some of my favorite people!!!! We met up with Dave & Katie (who I have not seen in, oh, 3 long years) and had dinner at Maggiano’s in Houston. This was a great idea, which turned into a potentially horrible idea after I chose to eat a whole plate of fried calamari and tons of linguine with clam sauce. (Darn you, bottomless Maggiano’s entrees!) Nothing bad happened, but in hindsight that could have been the worst move ever. Food was good – and totally worth it for the company!! Unfortunately, we got to dinner so late, it was 11pm by the time we made the 45 minute drive back to Conroe (where we stayed). Ben spent the next 45 minutes packing his drop bag and making sure everything was ready to go. It was midnight by the time we went to sleep- so late, especially with an impending 5am wake-up!!
We woke our butts up before the crack of dawn and made it to the park by 5:45am for the 6am 100 mile start time. I watched Ben take off into the darkness with his headlamp on, and although I lost him in the crowd, I watched the beginning of the 100 mile. Slowest race start ever! It was actually entertaining how slow it was. I tweeted a few things, took some photos, and checked out the start area after every one of the 100 milers had gone through.
I headed back to the car and tried to figure out what to wear. It was something like 48 degrees outside, which – I’m embarrassed to say – is still chilly enough for me to wear a long-sleeved shirt (and a short sleeved shirt, and my down jacket. True story). I fussed around with my shorts, shirts, put my Flip Belt on and filled it with Hammer gels, and tried to figure out how I’d stow my phone. After a while, I settled on my pink Indiana Running Company shirt and saucony tight shorts. Flip Belt, Garmin 610, and New Balance 1010.
I realized sometime after Ben’s race start that I was, in fact, allowed to have a “drop bag” at the turnaround point (which was also the start line, though not one at the far part of the course). I threw pretty much everything I’d brought with me into a drawstring bag and called it my drop bag, you know — just in case. I just had to label it with my race number and set it in the right area.
Back and forth – I took my water bottle to the start/turnaround area and filled it up. I stopped at the portajon. I went back to the car and fussed around again. It was kind of reminiscent of the I’m-a-lost-and lonely-puppy feeling I had during my first half iron distance triathlon! Finally, I decided to down a Vespa and take some multivitamins for the day. ….and here was my first mistake: the vitamins (6 of them) got stuck in my throat and I had to drink almost the entire bottle of water to wash them down and get rid of that uncomfortable feeling. I knew I was taking a risk with the Vespa — not only was it the full-strength (not Junior) version, but it was the concentrated version in the tiny packets. I’ve had stomach issues before with Vespa, and I’m prone to stomach issues on a normal day anyway. And then, I realized that I had completely forgotten to eat breakfast in the rush to get to the park and get running. By this time, it was way too late to scarf something down, but it also wasn’t a race-ending factor because I know I could rely on the closely-spaced aid stations. I sure loooooove to gamble on nutrition when it comes to racing!
My race start seemed just as anti-climactic as Ben’s did. It was slow, and I tucked in at the side-back of the pack of 50 milers behind the start line. Now, since I’m new to ultra running and trail running, I’ve always questioned my starting pace, because I always feel like I’m passing people. When this happens, it makes me wonder if the people who I’ve freshly passed are thinking, “Ha! Look at that jerk! She’s going out like this is a 5k and is totally gonna pay for that later!” (a comment which, in a less exaggerated form, I overheard someone saying about me miles later on the trail)
So we started, the airhorn went off, and we walked for at least another 100 yards. Once we got to running, I continually passed people, and passed people, and passed people — some who were starting off at a walk (which is totally ok!). If I were to do this race again, I would probably choose to start near the front of the pack so that I’m not getting in anyone’s way or sitting on anyone’s butt early on. Again – I’m not sure if this is normal, but I decided to run comfortably, I felt like I was going out at a conservative but sustainable pace, and I just thought it’d be smart to run how I felt without outside influences (for faster or slower).
Course consisted of three 16.67-mile loops. Very flat (compared to other ultras), and no water crossings. 3 aid stations on each loop, each covered twice as the course doubles back on itself.
Loop 1 (Mile 0 – 16.67)
Disclaimer: I’m about to be an over-sharer. You’ve been warned.
It hit me partway into mile 1: I. Have. To. Pee.
Thinking I was all smooth by foregoing the portajons at the first aid station, I figured I’d avoid restroom congestion — just like in road races – by hitting the next one up at mile 6. (Aid stations were placed roughly 3 miles apart, which makes this a somewhat attractive race if you’re mentally preparing to simply run from station to station.) WELL, that didn’t happen. And FINALLY there was an aid station at ~mile 11. Honestly, the discomfort was getting so terrible that making it to this bank of portajohns was as triumphant a victory as finishing the entire race. I’m just saying… it was bad.
Early on, I appreciated the scenery and terrain (read: not covered with snow). This is a good trail!
The full bladder must’ve affected my ability to see tree roots, because I fell. Like, a lot. I fell so much that I lost count before the end of the first loop! There was even a stretch of a mile, around mile 9, where I tripped and fell 3 times. The third time I kind of laid there and had to chuckle a bit before getting up. Was this an indication that it was going to be a long day?! Fortunately, the majority of the terrain was mostly fine dirt (like sand) and dried pine needles, so at least I was falling (specifically, unable to tuck and roll, but just skidding along awkwardly post-fall) on a soft-ish surface. Unfortunately, I kept falling on the same spot on my knee.
Just after DamNation, near the middle of the loop, I passed Ben coming from the other direction and we high-fived. It gave me a little speed boost to see him! I’m telling you… it’s all attitude — good attitude, good running.
Some miles in, I started seeing 50 Mile runners coming back toward me – and then I started getting concerned that I was possibly going the wrong way. …I never actually saw a course map, so I didn’t know where I was and asked a few guys I was about to pass which event they were in. I panicked a little when they replied, “The hundred.” Seeing my alarm, they told me that they believed the 100 and 50 courses converged and ran together for a while at the point where we were. Relief. Except the fact that all of those runners were heading back already indicated to me that I was really far behind them! The guys shouted something like, “Or maybe you’re really far ahead!” …but that made no sense at the time.
After that wonderful, fantastic, life-saving portajohn stop, I felt relieved, but didn’t really feel any better. I had this air bubble-water slosh going on in my stomach, which started to become kind of uncomfortable in the miles following. It’s always something!! I hoped that I could run through it or “run it away,” seeing as not-continuing wasn’t really a choice. It went away probably 4 miles later.
Since my race start was at 7am, it took me a little over 2.5 hours to finish the first 16.67 mile loop. Even halfway through the loop, I remember still feeling pretty chilly. Not to the point that I wished I had a jacket or a long-sleeved shirt, but only to the degree that I consciously thought about how I didn’t feel like I’d warmed up much. The sun was just coming up and it was getting brighter out. I was really thankful I didn’t need to start the race with a headlamp like the 100 milers did! (Otherwise we could’ve chalked up more trips and falls)
I reached the start line – the turnaround point – and stopped for a few minutes to grab some more food and water. Skipping breakfast before the start made me fearful that nutrition could be my downfall, so I did everything that I could to make sure I had enough gas in the tank by eating something substantial/digestible at every aid station.
Every single one of the volunteers at this race are SO FRIENDLY and HELPFUL. I felt completely fine, still relatively fresh, coming into the turnaround corral, but I was met with a gang of aid station volunteers who tried to do everything they possibly could to ensure I had everything I needed and was comfortable. It only took about 3 seconds of hesitating/standing still inside the tent for someone to ask, “What do you need? What can I get you? I’ll get it for you!” The same thing happened less than 20 feet away when I went toward the drop bag area to get my other gel… A volunteer immediately flew over to me and tried to help me avoid something as simple as bending over or searching for my stuff. He retrieved my bag and even helped me open it! Very impressive.
Eats: I skipped the Mile 3 aid station altogether, and took a cup of water and a banana at the mile 6 aid station to call it breakfast. Somewhere along the way I also downed a gel that I’d brought from home a small cup of heed. At the turnaround, I grabbed a 1/4 of a PB&J. I knew I can stomach that, and I knew it’d be of good substance so I wouldn’t feel hungry. Lots of water. One small cup of Gatorade.
Loop 2 (Miles 16.67 – 32.34ish)
More stomach slosh, more falls were the theme of Lap 2. Eventually I got through the stomach slosh, but I did have my worst fall of the day (which wasn’t really all that bad) that resulted in some scrapes and bruises on my knees. On this lap, I realized that I fell in almost the exact same spot as I’d fallen on the first loop… chuckling again, I snow-angeled in the dirt before I got up. You know, keep things interesting.
This is the lap where I started getting kind of bored. The crowd had thinned out, and I was still passing people every few minutes, my mind just started to wander. I made it through the first loop without music, and I felt like I was ok enough to make it without for the rest of the run – plus, I didn’t want to mess with the ear buds. I must’ve been listening to some of these songs the night before, because I literally had TWO songs playing in my head the entire length of the race: 1) I Just Wanna Live – Good Charlotte; 2) Gives You Hell – All-American Rejects.
Mostly, this part stayed on Loop Repeat… in my head:
I rock a law suit when I’m goin’ to court
A white suit when I’m getting divorced
A black suit at the funeral home
And my birthday suit when I’m home alone
Talking on the phone
Got an interview with the Rolling Stone
They’re saying, “Now you’re rich, now you’re famous”
Fake *** girls all know your name and
Lifestyles of the rich and the famous
Your first hit aren’t you ashamed
Of the life, of the life, of the life
I just want to live I just want to live
Don’t really care about the things that they say
Don’t really care about what happens to me
I just want to live
I mean, at least it was a good-ish song for running.
Not long into Loop 2, I started feeling like I was slowing down. It worried me a little, so I took another gel, and within about 5 minutes I started feeling better. I discovered partway into loop 2 that all of the aid stations had Hammer gel – Montana Huckleberry, my favorite! – for everyone to take too… so I started hoarding gels any time I could get my hands on some to make sure I’d never crash.
By this time, I also discovered that the PB&J I had was not only delicious, but that it made me feel full without feeling sick to my stomach or giving me a sidestitch! I started grabbing 2, then 3, then 4 quarters of cut-up PB&J sandwiches at each aid station. It took me probably ~1-2 minutes at each aid station before I downed the food I had in my hands and would take off running again.
Back to boredom. I got so bored during one of my loops that I pulled out my phone and made a vlog (video blog) for later. Apparently at the time the trail was notable and cool, but don’t let the terrain you see in the video fool you into believing that’s what the rest of the trail looks like. No sir! Roots. Everywhere. For some reason I felt like this back stretch reminded me of the Clear Creek Trail… except not-paved, with pine needles, different vegetation, and uphill. So maybe it wasn’t like the CCT at all, but darn it- I thought so at the time! Please excuse any signs of crazy. Also note that the view of the trail started going down… and down… and down… and I tried to make sure not to trip on anything! Why do I sound so out of breath?!
Ah yes, and less than 5 minutes after I took this video, I took a wrong turn and repeated a 2-2.5 mile section that I had *just* completed! It didn’t destroy me mentally, but it was frustrating and I didn’t know how much ground/time/distance I had lost… it was hard to know how much I had repeated. Of course, then I had to re-pass all of the same people I’d run by a little bit earlier. When I got to the turn and realized I’d gone the wrong way somehow, I exclaimed, “I’m so confused! I was just here 2 seconds ago!” to which another runner wittily replied, “I hope they don’t charge you extra money for those bonus miles.” It kind of made me laugh. (Had this conversation happened more loop later, I might have smacked him in the face. Truly crazy things happen when you’re tired.)
A half mile from the time I took this photo, I checked my phone to see that Ben had tweeted that his knee wasn’t doing so well after the first 20 mile loop. I wasn’t sure how severe it was, but was kind of worried… and at the same time, had no clue what was going on with his run. There was really nothing I could do at the moment but continue running.
Despite all of this, I was running relatively fast on this loop and still feeling pretty good. Legs felt a little more beat up, but for good reason. I was still keeping pace, and besides aid stations, hadn’t stopped to walk at all. Some of my miles went down as fast as 8:30s, and others were closer to 10 minutes. Either way, I felt strong, though less conservative than my start, and tried not to get into the mindset that I had to make up the time I’d lost from my repeating loop. I saw Ben about 2 miles from the finish of Loop 2, and he looked significantly more tired (while wearing his t-shirt as an infinity scarf around his neck), but he high-fived me and I think he said, “Love” as we passed. The stretch between the last aid station to the turnaround seemed to take forever. I specifically didn’t ask anybody, nor did I want to know how long it was. I did remember that the race photographers were camped out near some water, and once I reached them it wasn’t too long before the loop was over. …kind of like the equivalent of running tree to tree, landmark to landmark. Little victories.
Somewhere near the turnaround point, I was getting antsy to reach it. I crossed a road and asked a spectator, “how far until the turnaround?” and he replied that it was about a half mile. Wrong – it was more like 3/4 of a mile…. every little bit counts!
That’s all that was notable on this lap. It was definitely getting warmer outside, and by the time I reached the turnaround point, it was something like 12:30pm. At the turnaround, I had to gather up some will and motivation to head out for one more loop, and knowing I’d be done after the next lap was what got me to go back out again.
Eats: The usual PB&J at every aid station (increasingly more with each one) and 2 or 3 gels taken between aid stations. I drank tons of water since the temperature was rising and I was starting to sweat. Downed 2 Endurolytes capsules at the turnaround.
Loop 3 (Miles 33ish to 50+)
I always felt more refreshed and mentally in a better place after each aid station, and even more after heading out from the turnaround. I changed to a cooler tank top and left for my last loop feeling positive and excited in the fact that I’d be done the next time I was back!
I kept experience some intermittent tired (s)lows, which I solved easily with an energy gel once I realized I had reached that point (and my pace reflected it); one of the key giveaways that I was getting to the low were the moments in which I would get weary of telling people “good job,” “nice work,” “looking good!” as I passed them. [Not going to lie: I’d change it up so my comment didn’t seem like an insincere “good job.” haha.] Sometimes it came off as a mumble, and sometimes it was accompanied with a thumbs up, but I tried for every single person. Attitude! I mean, I’m convinced I have run some of the best races & times in my life purely because I was smiling. I remember getting a boost of confidence (and a reminder to check my running form) when someone I passed or who passed me oncoming commented, “You look really fresh!” so I’ll have to remember that. Another friendly person I scooted around on the back stretch (where I took the video on the second loop) responded to my “Strong work!” comment with, “You’re my hero! (Pressure’s on!)” I hope I can have the power to say something as little as that to someone, in a future race, that’ll give him/her a little help – a little boost.
Somewhere on this loop, I remember hearing a person tell a girl in front of me, “You’re sixth right now,” which led me to believe I was doing ok in the race! I passed her eventually, but with so many people on the course and two different race distances, it was impossible to tell who was running what. By this time, I’m sure people were also on different laps.
I finally got to DamNation again, and I did not make the same mistake twice! It was truly hot out by the time I got to the full-sun section, and I had to tell myself that I’d wanted to get sun while we were here, and boy was I getting it! It wasn’t blazing hot, just uncomfortable enough that I was glad to be in the woods for the other 98% of the run.
|What in DamNation…|
You might think that my earlier video was a little cray, but it’s not. Not compared to what I’m about to tell you. As Jeff described in his 24-hour race, in a long run, your mind can take you to a dark place. I was running on my own, and hadn’t seen anyone in at least a mile. I started thinking about Todd and Ted, and about how we ‘boop!’ Ted on the head. Then I thought about how soft they both are. “Fuzzy…” slipped out of my mouth and I cheesed like a kindergartener on picture day. While I was running. By myself. At the time, I had an inkling that what just happened was kind of out of the ordinary, but now that I’m in a normal state of mind… that’s completely NUTS! So I don’t know if I actually reached that dark place, but I can tell you my brain was kind of cracking up on me. Temporarily. I think. I’m all better now!
No falls on this loop! I had a few close calls, but nothing significant, if I remember right.I saw a girl bite it pretty hard as she was coming off and down from a bridge, and that made me scared enough to pick up my feet. As I got toward the middle/end of this loop, I felt my energy levels dip down and would down another gel and feel ok again – rinse and repeat.
If you know me well, you know my brain doesn’t work so well when I run (nay, it turns off…). I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until early in the third lap that I figured out this was some kind of a lollipop-shaped course and that I had actually been visiting each aid station twice on a lap. And then I finally figured out that all of the 50-Milers that I’d seen running at me, oncoming, were likely behind me as I was headed back and they were heading out. I’m totally slow – this discovery took me a while.
|I take pictures when I get bored|
As I reached the second aid station and just past mile 40, I really started feeling anxious to be done. In my head, I told myself, “I’ve run 10 miles on a day I feel like crap, so I can surely do it now.” I even flashed back to a class that I’ve been attending at Vibe Yoga (TNT with Kelly!), realizing that I’ve been able to “do ten reps… and then when you’re tired, do 10 more!”, and willed myself to channel that (mental/physical) strength to get to the finish. When I was feeling blah, I thought, “They [the people I’m catching up to] feel just as tired/achy as I do, keep going!” My IT band felt a bit tight, I’d been stubbing my toes at the fronts of my shoes from each fall, and I felt a slight twinge on the inside of my right leg. But mostly, my legs were just tired and not used to so much pounding! I started thinking thoughts like, “I never want to do this ever again!” and “I will never ever ever do 100,” and “I wonder how much less my legs would ache if I’d been wearing Hokas?”
When I reached 7 miles to go, I considered that Paynetown could be as long as 7 miles (it’s so not, but anything to get through), and again, I’ve finished that distance on days I felt horrible. Same with 6 – a big campus loop. Easier than Paynetown on this flat course! I hit the last aid station and refueled, asking some other runners how much farther the turnaround/finish would be. 4.4 miles! And then they flew by me effortlessly (which was really impressive, since they were running 100). I could hang on for 4.4…. at that point, my remaining distance came to be measured in campus loops. My Garmin had been beeping at me for a few miles, and finally died around mile 44/45. 4 miles = a short campus loop, and then 3 miles seemed to be the home stretch as 3 miles is the shortest and quickest of the campus loops. My attitude that the 3-mile campus loop is short and simple should definitely carry over the finishing the last 3 miles. At 2 miles, I looked for the photographers near the lake, and when I didn’t see them, was questioning how far was left. Once I hit the 2 bridges in a row, I knew I was getting closer… and strange enough, my legs felt refreshed.
Eats: a handful of dry, dry goldfish. There’s something about continuously eating sugary-sweet stuff while running that is really not appealing/appetizing to me. Probably 3-4 gels, about 4 PB&J quarters, and tons of water. Oh- and lots of Cheetos!
I made it to the road crossing where I’d asked the spectator earlier how far was left, signaling that I was less than a mile to go. I found it in my legs to take off and go like a middle school cross country runner who’s just caught a glimpse of the finish line. I rounded the corner, saw my finish line, and sprang to the end of 50 (plus) miles.
Here’s the finish line, with some pretty awesome spectators!
My chip didn’t have my name associated with it, but when I was hunted down by one of the event managers/race timers, we got that straightened out quickly and efficiently. Then, they put an award in my hand – 3rd place overall female! – and gave me my finisher medal. They were even nice enough to look up when they last logged Ben’s chip, and what distance that was.
How fun are these awards??
I hobbled over to the car and laid in the backseat for a few minutes, texting and posting twitter updates on Ben, and then changed shoes. Ben actually called me on his phone while I was laying there, saying that he’d just finished 60 and was wondering where I was. He was to the point where his knee (or compensation for it) was really bothering him and wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue. There was no way he could be running again, though, since walking hurt terribly. I joined him for the next few miles as he decided to go to 100k, and walk at least to the first aid station on the loop. I grabbed m&ms, cheez-its, Cheetos, gummy bears, and all sorts of goodies in a bowl to take on our walk. (Earned!!)
We made it to 100k on the walk back to the turnaround via the roads. The aid station couldn’t process drop-outs, so we had to make it to the start/finish/turnaround to do this. Ben was totally ok with this given the circumstances, and I know he took a lot lessons from this race and experience, even if it didn’t end with a finish. Injury considered, no regrets!
Here’s us on the road headed back – tired as ever. Ben hit 100k on this walk and I hit ~55 miles for the day.
For you time- and split-loving people, here you go…
Weighing in on the Rocky Raccoon 50 and 100 Mile
I’ve never experienced any other events to compare this to, but here’s why I liked the RR100/50:
- Well marked course (I was just distracted and took a wrong turn!). The trails that are incorrect are actually flagged off and signage placed so that you know you’re not going the right way.
- Great volunteers and aid stations – one was fiesta-themed, the volunteers were ALL extremely helpful and cheerful
- There were lots of people on the course, but no so many that it was overly crowded. Having a big field meant, to me, that I could use them to pull me along regardless of the distance I was running. Or, running from person to person.
- Course is flat with some rollers. If you train in Bloomington, it’s cake. (That’s not to say that the hills seem to get bigger and bigger with each lap…)
- Weather was nice. Starting temp was around 50 degrees, and the high on the day was 72. Sun! Low humidity (~50%) in Texas in the winter.
- You’re usually running no more than 3-4 miles between aid stations, which is a mentally easier task compared to the setup you get in other ultras.
- This is one of the few ultra courses, as I overheard someone say, that doesn’t take place on a mountain.
- The 50 mile starts at dawn, and assuming you run relatively fast enough, you could finish before it gets dark. Running in the dark can get creepy, and carrying a headlamp can get annoying.
- 50 Milers have just 1 less hour to complete the race (29 hours) as 100 milers. That comes out to a >30-minute mile.
- Went out conservatively and comfortably.
- Stayed positive, came out still liking running
- Ran the entire 50 miles (besides stopping at aid stations), no walk stops.
- Chose shoes that I could keep on the entire race
- Was pretty quick at the aid stations
- Gel and food “kicked in” at the right times, didn’t crash
- No injury (kinda)! I’ve been working on strength training and form, but had some nagging twinges of plantar fasciitis and some foot irritation.
- When I go in with no expectations, I always surprise myself.
- Figured out how to maintain nutrition and its importance.
- No blisters!
- Heart rate training – with all the slow running I did, I built a pretty good aerobic base, which I think helped me get through this run and still gain speed at shorter (mile) distances.
To improve next time (next time?!)
- I really should’ve eaten breakfast.
- Drank WAY too much water before the race.
- Ate too much fried food the night before. Solution: Buy or pre-select dinner plans.
- Didn’t get as much sleep as I wanted. Solution: Go to sleep earlier.
- Any longer and I might’ve had some overuse injury issues – the twinge in my lower shin could’ve progressed to become worse.
- Any longer and I might’ve had some shoe issues – my big toe was feeling cut up every time I fell, possibly from debris and sand in my shoe.