Last weekend, we flew down to Huntsville, TX for the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile run. We flew with Brian and Kelly and got in a little after noon. We gathered our massive bag from baggage claim – some would laugh at everything we brought but I’ve never been accused of being a light packer. Then after picking up our rental car, we were off to find some food. We were in Texas, so naturally we were looking for Tex-Mex (when in Rome…). We found a great little place called Monterey’s and it was delicious! Naturally, I ate way too much greasy food but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. We drove up to Huntsville and checked into our modest hotel before continuing on to the packet pickup.
The packet pickup and pre-race dinner/meeting were held at the Walker County shelter which was about 15 miles from the race start. We immediately saw people we knew which is one of the greatest things about the sport of ultrarunning. We got in line to get our packets and then headed into the large hall for the meeting. We spotted Tony and headed over to sit with him. Dinner followed the pre-race meeting, we were served a terrific meal of pasta (surprise), salad, bread and two kinds of desert (which totally rocked our world). We sat around for a while after dinner chatting it up with various people that we either knew from other races or had met that night. Soon, the crowd started to thin and we decided to head back to the hotel for our final prep.
The weather was supposed to be cool and dry at the start with temps warming through the sunny afternoon and then dip again at night. We wanted to make sure we had plenty of warm clothing in our drop bag as well as at the start/finish area. The course was five loops, each 20 miles. The drop bags were located at roughly 6 miles and 12.5 miles so we never had to go very long between them which made it a little easier from a planning perspective. By eight o’clock, we were done packing and exchanging leg rubs. By nine o’clock, it was lights out. I slept great and when the alarm went off at 4AM, I felt pretty decent.
We had planned to leave by 4:50AM to give us plenty of time before the 6AM start but I held the group up until a little after 5AM – things always take longer than I expect. We got to the park and quickly started bumping into familiar faces, I was really getting excited about the day. Paige and I decided that we would just use my big suitcase as our collective homebase at the start/finish area. We didn’t realize how hilarious others would find this choice to be – we got lots of comments about the size of our “drop bag” but during the night, I was glad to have so many clothing options. We checked in and prepped our bottles, took a few pictures and then wished everyone well as the start approached.
When we were putting together our race schedule for the year, Paige and I decided that we wanted to do at least one hundred miler together and Rocky Raccoon was the race we chose. We discussed the possibility that one of us might not be able to finish for one reason or another and agreed that if that were the case, the other would continue on but I don’t think either of us really considered it as a real possibility. Even though we didn’t really discuss it, each of us had our own fears about the late stages of the race. For the past several races, we have supported/crewed/paced each other meaning that one of us was always fresh for the other when things hit the fan. In this case, we were both running the whole race and neither of us would be fresh.
The race started on time and we rolled out into the night, all 344 of us. The beginning of the race was crowded as we all filed onto the single track trail. We spent the first several miles with Brian chatting it up. Within in a mile, I had my first near fall but after five or six exaggerated lurching steps, I pulled it together and avoided taking down the train of runners behind me. The first hour was in the dark so it was difficult to get a good feel for the area but what was obvious was that the trail was soft and rolling with nothing too steep. We crossed over several wooden walkways that were slightly elevated to keep us out of the muck that lie beneath. To the left, was a lake, it wasn’t visible but the sounds of the frogs gave it away. There are, allegedly, alligators in “them there parts” but we didn’t see any and I felt comfort that there were enough people in front of us that would get eaten first so I wasn’t real concerned.
The first aid station came quickly and we moved right through it, with our handheld bottles, we could cover a lot of miles at these temperatures without needing to stop. The crowd we were running with was thick and, as it would turn out, would remain that way for several hours. The trail did widen periodically but much of it was single-track and didn’t make for easy passing. The miles were slow going but, starting slow is always a good idea. By the second aid station, it was getting light out. We had drop bags here at the Dam Road Aid Station (DRAS) but opted to keep our headlamps just in case.
The next section was a six mile loop that would lead us back to the DRAS. This was also the section where the 50 mile and 100 mile courses diverged. By now, the sun was up and we could see how beautiful the area truly was. The sky was blue and we were in good spirits. The crowd around us was still thick so we weren’t able to relax as much as I would have liked – there were constantly people in front and behind that either needed to be passed or wanted to pass. It would eventually thin out some but not for several hours yet. When we got back DRAS, we dropped off our headlamps and shed our windbreakers. Before heading back out, we topped off our bottles with the help of the awesome volunteers, one of whom was Mike Potter – he would become our best friend out there before the day was over. As we headed out, my stomach was starting to feel a bit queasy. The next eight miles back to the start/finish area felt long, as it would for the remaining laps too. As approached the start/finish AS, we passed Ed Kelly on his way back out onto the course. The “laps” were 20 miles long and were really comprised of a section where the course doubled back on itself until about the two mile mark and then doubled back on itself for another section just before the DRAS with a couple of smaller loops thrown in there. This allowed for us to see people going the opposite direction from us if they were spaced out just right. Kelly was waiting for us as we pulled into the AS, it is always so great to see her. She was all smiles and offering to help get our bag etc. We made a quick pit stop, filled our bottles, and just as we were heading back out, Brian came into the AS. He was blister free and feeling good – it was still early but the day was shaping up nicely.
We left and headed out for lap number two. It wasn’t long and my stomach was feeling rough again, could it be the excessive Tex-Mex from the day before, hmm??? Soon, my mouth was watering and I figured it would be just a matter of minutes before I was on the side of the trail heaving (which, incidentally, would be my first occurrence ever). The next several minutes were touch and go but eventually, the sensation would pass and my unblemished record would stand. I chewed on some ginger and that seemed to help settle my stomach even more. The rest of the day was somewhat uneventful and passed quickly. We saw Brian a couple more times, we saw Tony once, we walked some but mostly time just passed. It is always amazing to me how time is warped during a long race – moments feel long yet hours pass that can’t fully be accounted for. You’re aware of every step and yet seem to have large lapses of time with no real memory. Miles themselves can seem long yet they add up quickly. It is a strange phenomenon that is hard to wrap your head around but I thoroughly love it.
Mile 60: I have fallen once, Paige has fallen three times on her right knee, it is dark again, we are dressing for the night, Brian has blisters but is determined not to let them stop him, Paige and I are feeling tired but reasonably good, Kelly is suiting up to accompany Brian out on lap four, people are starting to show the wear and tear from the day, some folks are starting to drop out.
Lap four would prove to be challenging mentally and physically. It was getting cold fast and we were moving more slowly now due to the fatigue in our legs. I still had on shorts but my upper body was covered with a very warm top, a windbreaker, a stocking cap, gloves and a neck gaiter. I was barely staying warm enough and if we stopped for even a minute to stretch something, tie a shoe, or fill a bottle, I was instantly shivering. We got to the DRAS and saw Ed Cook, a fellow CHUG. He was struggling with the cold, I had an extra shirt in my drop bag which I offered to him – he accepted it happily and headed out still visibly shaking. We didn’t stick around long knowing that it can be dangerous to linger at the AS when you start feeling tired. During the next several miles, the sleepiness really set in for both of us and we began to do a version of sleep running. I felt this during Kettle Moraine last year but didn’t really experience it as vividly at Javelina. It is a state where the body is doing its best to force you asleep and your mind is doing its best to fight back and keep you moving. The result is a blurry eyed zombie like state – neither asleep nor fully awake – it is one of the strangest and yet oddly enjoyable feelings I’ve ever experienced.
As we were finishing the fourth lap, Paige was negotiating a nap. I was pretty reluctant fearing that it would lead to stiffness (among other things) and that getting going again would be that much harder. But, my resistance wasn’t that strong and I agreed to a short nap in the car. We blasted the heater and set an alarm for 15 minutes – we were instantly asleep. Upon waking, I felt a 100 times better, no longer sleepy and warm for the first time in hours. Getting out of the car was, understandably, difficult but we forced ourselves out and immediately started the prep for our final lap. I put on extra clothes including a pair of tights. We then tanked up with chicken noodle soup and hot chocolate. Just as we were leaving, Brian and Kelly popped into the tent. It was great to see them! Brian’s feet were full of blisters but he seemed in good spirits and didn’t think they were bad enough to force him to stop – that was good news. We said our goodbyes and headed out on our final lap.
I fully expected my legs to feel more stiff after our nap but, in fact, they felt pretty good. We both noted that the power nap did us right. We still had a couple more hours of night but it seemed more manageable now. As we were running, we began to discuss how long the night seemed and then Paige made the obvious connection – its winter which means long nights and short days. I have no idea why this didn’t occur to me before but it explained a lot. In our previous all night runs, it was fun because it meant a reprieve from the heat, long twilight hours, and a relatively short night (seven or so hours). But, doing a race in February meant that the nights were long, nearly 13 hours, and the night didn’t provide a reprieve from the heat but rather a chasm of cold. Yes, this obvious yet somehow elusive realization will definitely impact future race decisions.
When we reached DRAS, Paige was tired again and asked if we could sit for a few minutes. I wasn’t feeling great and some hot chocolate sounded pretty good. Paige instantly fell asleep in a chair while I worked my way through a cup of hot chocolate mixed with coffee. I was getting cold and needed to get moving so I woke Paige up and after topping off our bottles and grabbing some Ramen noodles, we were on our way. The sun was making its appearance and Paige took this as her queue to drop the hammer – it was all I could do to keep her in sight. The next six miles (86 -92) passed very quickly and it felt awesome to be making some real progress toward finishing the race. This was the second time that Paige pushed me way outside of my comfort zone but I was thankful for the push. Back at DRAS for the final time, we dropped off our headlamps, grabbed some food and took a short break. While sitting there, an older guy named Hans-Dieter Weisshaar came into the AS and sat down. Hans is a bit of a legend in the ultra community. He started running ultras at the age of 58 and now, a little over ten years later, he has completed 120 hundred mile races! This year alone, he has completed four and its only February. The guy is amazing. What’s his secret? He drinks Half & Half – true story, we watched him take a couple of swigs from a half gallon container – I love the ultra world and the characters you meet out there.
We left the AS for our final eight miles. I was pretty stiff and having a hard time getting going but we made slow steady progress. We stopped at the next AS for the first time all day to get some noodles and more hot chocolate, which was now my favorite source of calories. Here is where we saw Lynnor, one of Paige’s buddies from the ultralist. The last four miles were slow going but at this point it didn’t matter because we were nearly done. We could see the finish line ahead and it looked glorious. As we crossed (I believe we were holding hands but its all a little fuzzy), we were approached by the co-race director who congratulated us and presented us with our finishers’ buckles – they were beautiful! As we made our way over to our bag, Hans came over to congratulate us on our finish – what an amazing sport where a superstar who has accomplished so much would take the time to congratulate us newbies.
As it turned out, several CHUGs weren’t able to finish for a myriad of reasons – blisters, bone-chilling cold, GI issues, or some combination of these. Brian was forced out at mile 80 so they were waiting in the car near the finish and came out to greet us. Brian has such an amazing ability to be happy for others while dealing with his own tremendous disappointment – what a great guy. We said our good-byes to Ed and Terry before heading to IHOP for brunch. When we walked into the restaurant, we saw that we weren’t the only runners with the same idea – it was hilarious to watch people trying to get around on very stiff legs and the rest of the patrons in the restaurant having no idea what was going on.
After brunch, we picked up our drop bags and headed for Brelly’s hotel. Kelly was driving and immediately had three snoring passengers. When we arrived at the hotel and somehow managed to pull ourselves out of the car and up to the room. Paige and I immediately went to work repacking our bags for the trip home and then showered up. It wasn’t long before we were off to the airport to catch our flight back to Chicago.
I can’t begin to fully explain how great it was to do this race with Paige. Not once during the entire race did I feel anything but love for her, never impatience, never frustration, only love. At more than one point, we stopped on the trail to have an impromptu hug which felt so comforting and energizing. The reality of running the whole race together far exceeded my expectations. Thank you Paige, for an amazing experience and for being so wonderful.