On February 7, I ran the Rocky 50, a 50 mile trail run in Huntsville State Park. Huntsville State Park is about 60 miles north of Houston. The race is run on the same trails as the Rocky Raccoon 100, which was held a week earlier.
One of my goals for 2015 is to get out of my comfort zone. I’m primarily a road-runner, and I mostly run marathons. I’ve done other trail races, but I’m still somewhat of a novice. This race gave me some experience on trails, while also stepping up the distance.
I didn’t really train for this race. What I mean by that is I didn’t do any training that was specific to this terrain or distance. Since the beginning of winter, I’ve been training on a treadmill during the week and running road marathons on most of the weekends. I haven’t been on trails since June. My hope was that I could drop this race into my schedule and basically fake my way through it. I’ve done that before on races up to 50 miles, and it’s worked out surprisingly well.
The trails in Huntsville State Park don’t have steep climbs, but they have lots of roots. My biggest concern was tripping. I have chronically tight hamstrings. Tripping and stumbling off balance could cause an injury, even if I didn’t fall.
I flew to Houston on Friday, arriving just after noon. I stayed at a hotel in Conroe, which is about halfway between the airport and Huntsville State Park. After stopping in Conroe to check into my room, I continued to the park to pick up my race packet and attend the pre-race briefing. While I was waiting for the briefing, I had a chance to look around a bit. I had never seen the trails before, so I wanted to see what they looked like. The sections of trail near the start/finish looked pretty runnable, but I knew other sections would have more roots.
The briefing was held outside the park lodge, which is next to Lake Raven. Parts of the course are alongside this lake. Other parts go through the surrounding forest.
I returned to Conroe for an early dinner at and went to bed as early as I could. The race started at 6:00, but it takes about 30 minutes to get to the start from Conroe. The first time I did a 50 mile trail run, I arrived late and missed the start by two minutes. Not wanting to make that mistake again, I allowed extra time. I woke up at 3:30, so I could take an hour to get ready and still be on the road by 4:30.
The course is a 16.67 mile loop that we ran three times. The loops combined sections of three different trails through the park. A few sections were out-and-back. Because of the early start, the first hour of the race was in the dark. I didn’t want to wear a head lamp, so I carried a hand-held flashlight. If this was a road race, I would have gone without a light. It’s not. You need to be able to see those roots.
When I arrived at the start, it was 41 degrees, but it was going to warm into the upper 60s. I was originally planning to wear a short-sleeve T-shirt and shorts, but I made a last minute decision to also wear a wind shirt for the first loop. I packed a pair of gloves, but I could only find one glove after arriving at the start. The other fell out of my gear bag, and I didn’t find it until after the race.
My hands get cold easily. I didn’t like the idea of running with only one glove. At least I had a glove for the hand that held my flashlight. The metal casing was ice cold. I saw my friend Angie at the start, and she suggested pulling my sleeve over my bare hand. That worked well.
The aid stations are three to four miles apart. I wore a belt that holds one bottle. I started the race with a full bottle. I didn’t need that much liquid to get from one aid station to the next, but my race packet included a packet of drink mix, so I made use of it.
Knowing I wasn’t as prepared as I should be, I went in with conservative goals. I didn’t know what would be a realistic time goal, so I didn’t have one. Mostly, I wanted to run cautiously, avoid tripping, and set a pace that felt fairly easy.
Since I didn’t have any specific goals (other than finishing and avoiding injury), I also didn’t have a detailed plan. I know what you’re thinking. Someone hacked into David’s blog. Who is this imposter with no goals and no plans? I was out of my element, so I viewed this race as a learning experience.
I was most nervous about the early miles. A friend who did the Rocky Raccoon 100 a week earlier commented that one of the rootiest sections came in the first three miles. The first time I ran that, it would still be dark. I started cautiously. I didn’t care if I was slow. I just wanted to get through those early miles without tripping.
Other times I’ve done trail races at night, I’ve used a head lamp. It has a bright beam, but I can’t direct it. The flashlight worked better. I held it at waist level and kept the beam focused on the roots. That worked great. Whenever I saw a group of roots, I shortened my stride, picked up my feet more and danced around the roots. I could do that only because I still had fresh legs. In the first three miles, I never made contact with a root.
Although I planned to start slowly, I was getting pulled out at a fast pace by the runners in front of me. All my attention was focused on watching for roots. To make sure I stayed on the trail, I followed the runners ahead of me. At times, I started falling behind, so I picked up my pace to keep from losing sight of the other runners.
The trails were well marked. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a trail that’s been marked better. At every major turn, there were yellow signs with arrows pointing the way to go. Wrong turns were marked with signs or blocked off with yellow tape. In between the signs, there was pink flagging with reflective tabs. These were located every 0.05 miles. In daylight, it would have been difficult to make a wrong turn. In the dark, however, you still had to pay attention.
After a few miles, we reached the Nature Center aid station. I was pleased to have made it through the early miles without tripping. I had enough fluid in my bottle to reach the next aid station, so I didn’t stop. In general, if my bottle was at least half full, I didn’t bother refilling it. When it was low, I’d refill it completely. Actually, the volunteers refiled it for me. All of the aid stations had cheerful volunteers who asked you what you needed when you arrived.
As I left the Nature Center aid station, there weren’t any runners right in front of me. It was still dark, so I had to start watching for trail markers. There was another runner right behind me. For the next mile or two, we helped each other spot the turns. After a couple more miles, there was enough light to see the signs without a flashlight. In daylight, there was almost no chance of missing a turn.
Some sections of the trail had roots, but other sections had good even footing. About five miles into the race, we were on another rooty section, and I finally hit a root for the first time. I didn’t fall or even lose my balance. That time, I was able to keep a smooth stride.
Before long I hit another root and stumbled slightly. I didn’t fall, but I could feel the impact through my left leg and into my glutes. I didn’t injure anything, but it was a wake-up call.
My first fall came after another half mile. My foot caught on a root, and I hit the dirt before I knew what happened. Fortunately, it was a soft landing. The dirt was somewhat soft, and it was covered with a thin layer of pine needles. I took most of the impact with my right arm and shoulder. Nothing hurt, so I bounced up quickly and started running again. I decided to slow my pace a little.
The next aid station was Dam Road. I ate a PJB while a volunteer filled my bottle with HEED. I like PBJs, because they have sugar and starch with a little bit of protein. They’re easy to eat, and I can eat them all day long without any digestive problems. They’re also something you can expect to find at almost any trail race. The aid station had other foods, but my mantra became, “PBJs and HEED. It’s all you need.”
The Dam Road aid station is the only one we visited twice per lap. In between, we ran a loop that brought us up onto a levee next to the lake. It was colder there. I was almost halfway through the first loop, and I actually felt colder than I did at the start. I was starting to question whether I would be able to discard my wind shirt after the first loop.
By now, there was enough light that I didn’t need the flashlight anymore, so I put it in my fanny pack. Being able to see the roots in the light of day probably made me too complacent. A short time later, I had my second fall. This time, I hit the ground with my hands. It’s a good thing they were both covered, or I might have had some scrapes. As it was, I was unhurt. I was slower getting up, but resumed running. It wouldn’t be my last fall. Each time, I was a bit slower when I resumed running.
After going through the Dam Road aid station a second time, I warmed up enough to remove my glove. We retraced the section of trail where I fell earlier. Then we started a section that was more runnable. It was slightly uphill, but there weren’t any roots.
The last aid station before returning the start/finish area was the Park Road aid station. Just before the aid station, we crossed the main road into the park. My friends Mark and Stefanie were volunteering at this aid station. The first time through, I saw Stefanie.
As I started the final section of my first loop, I was finally starting to feel warm in my wind shirt. At first, I didn’t know if I would still be warm enough without it. By the end of the loop I was getting hot and sweaty. As soon as I could see the start/finish area, I took off my wind shirt.
There was a place in the start/finish area where you could leave drop bags. Before starting my second loop, I put my wind shirt and flashlight in my bag. As I started the second loop, I checked my time. I ran the first third of the race in 2:52. For the time being, I was on pace to break nine hours, but I expected to slow down.
The beginning and end of each loop was an out-and-back section. As I started my second lap, I recognized some of the runners coming in. At first, I saw runners who had always been near me on the first loop. Then I saw my friend Ed. Then I saw Angie.
I once again had to navigate a section with lots of roots. So far, I was making it through this section without falling or having any bad stumbles. Toward the end of this section, we ran alongside the lake and there was a cold breeze. This was the first time I ran this section with only a T-shirt, and I briefly got cold.
The Nature Center aid station was the only one with permanent bathrooms, so I took the opportunity to make a bathroom stop. A couple miles later, I reached another rooty section, where I had my first fall on the previous loop. One of my feet caught a root, and I stumbled. I felt the shock all the way through my left leg and butt. I didn’t injure myself, but it didn’t feel good. A short time later, I had another stumble. Again, I felt it in my left leg. These two stumbles had a cumulative effect.
Soon, I heard another runner approaching from behind. I moved to one side of the trail to give him room to pass. This section of the trail is out-and-back, and I saw one of the leaders coming back. I also needed to leave room for him to pass. I took my eyes off the roots. Boom! Down I went. I was uninjured, except for my pride. Each time I fell, I took longer to get. Each time, my pace after falling was a bit slower than my pace before falling.
I was keeping track of the number of times I tripped, the number of times it made me stumble, and the number of times I fell. I eventually lost track of how many times I tripped. By the end of the race, it was probably around 50. I also lost track of the number of stumbles. I’d guess it was about 15. I remember each fall like it was yesterday. Actually, it was yesterday.
Midway through the loop, I once again reached the section along the levee. The first time, it was cold. Now it was hot. Most of the course was well-shaded, but this part was exposed to the sun. It was late morning, and the sun was now high in the sky.
When I got back to the Dam Road aid station, I was past the halfway mark. That’s a psychological lift, but I was also getting sore and tired. I took the first loop too fast, and I was going to pay for it. Tripping on roots so frequently also took a toll.
By the time I made it to the Park Road aid station, my quads were getting sore. I had 21 miles to go. I saw Mark at the aid station and commented that the last 21 miles were going to be slow. He shrugged.
If there’s a place where I came unhinged, it was on the rooty section near the lake. I was feeling good about only falling once on my second loop. Then I caught a root and hit the ground. I was slow getting up and couldn’t get back to the same pace. Then I fell again. I landed on my back. As I sat up, I was looking backward. I wanted to know what I tripped on, but all I could see was a scuff mark in the pine needles. Did I really trip on pine needles? No. Two feet farther up the trail, I saw a knobby root that only stuck up about an inch above the ground. Even when I was looking for it, I could barely see it.
I was even slower getting up and my pace after the fall was slower than molasses. The time it took me to get up was enough time for my sore legs to get stiff. For the rest of the loop I was really slow. I realized my third loop was going to be much slower than the first two.
When I reached the start/finish area, I looked for PBJs at the aid station. Right next to them, I saw a pan of cheese quesadillas. They looked really good. I left the aid station with a quesadilla and a full bottle of HEED. I couldn’t eat it as quickly as a PBJ, so I took a brief walking break while I ate. The start of the loop is slightly uphill, so it wasn’t a bad time to walk.
My time for the first two loops was 6:10. I was slowing down, but it still seemed like I should easily break 10 hours. All I needed to do was run the last lap in 3:50. That’s an average pace of almost 14 minutes per mile. I wasn’t running very fast, but surely I could maintain that pace.
When I finished my quesadilla, I resumed running. It was still slightly uphill, and I started getting hot. I was so hot, I felt feverish. It was a relief to get back by the lake again. The same breeze that made me cold earlier now kept me from overheating.
If I could’ve done half running and half walking and still broken 10 hours, I would have. I felt I needed to run most of the loop to ensure I was staying on pace. Stepping over big roots got increasingly difficult. On sections that were both rooty and uphill, I had to walk. I tried to limit my walking breaks to about 30 seconds at a time. I also tried to limit them to an average of one per mile.
About five miles into my third loop, I noticed I was playing leapfrog with another runner. He was walking going uphill and running everywhere else. I was doing a slow steady run. When he ran, he would pass me. When he walked, I would pass him. At one point, I made a comment, “In the first loop, I ran everything at the same pace. In the second loop, I slowed down going uphill. In this loop, I’m back to running everything at the same pace. I only have one gear left, and it’s slow.”
When I reached Dam Road going outbound, I tried to estimate what my time would be for the first half of the loop. It wasn’t easy, because there wasn’t a halfway mark. When I returned to Dam Road, I would be about a half mile past halfway. I could see it was going to be close. I wouldn’t have any margin for continuing to slow down.
On a long gradual hill, I was forced to take a walking break. The guy I was leapfrogging caught up to me. He said, “We’re right on the cusp of breaking 10 hours.” I said, “I’ve been doing the math too.” He replied, “I’m a math guy. I’m always thinking of those things while I’m running.” He thought we could break 10 hours if we maintained our current pace and then made a push in the last few miles. I didn’t tell him what I was thinking. His current pace was too fast for me. Also, I couldn’t see myself making a push on the same section where I fell twice on my second loop.
He was beginning to pull away. Then I stumbled on a root. That slowed me down, and I kept falling farther behind. Before long I could see him up on the levee. By the time I got there, he was almost done with that section. Then I lost sight of him.
Before I reached the Dam Road aid station for the last time, I could already see that I had fallen off the pace. As I left the aid station, my watch read 8:14 and change. There was a sign giving the aid station mileage for each loop. I was at 42.21 miles, so I had 7.79 to go. I had an hour and 45 minutes to run 7.79 miles. That sounded easy, but I knew it wouldn’t be. I had to average roughly 13:30 per mile the rest of the way. On the first half of the loop, I averaged 14 minutes.
Leaving the aid station, I was on a section with good footing. It was slightly uphill, but there weren’t any roots. I worked hard to pick up my pace, while I was able to get into a rhythm. It was working, but it didn’t last long enough. I reached another rooty section, and it slowed me down again. I also had to slow to a walk to step over some of the bigger roots.
I eventually reached another section with good footing. It was a long straight section with a gradual upgrade, but no roots. Because the trail was rising ahead of me, I could see for a long distance. I saw “math guy” in the distance. He was walking the hill. I worked as hard as I could to push my pace. He seemed confident he could break 10 hours. If I could catch up to him, maybe I could too. Catching him going uphill was the easy part. I would still need to stay with him when the hill leveled off.
When I caught him, I asked if he was still on pace to break 10 hours. He said he stopped figuring it out. His legs couldn’t do the hill. Then he told me that I looked like I was on a fast enough pace. I pressed on.
I was getting into a good rhythm. Going uphill was tiring, but I was gradually accelerating. Having a long section without roots helped. I didn’t know how fast I was going, but I was confident I had picked up the pace.
At the top of the hill, there was a sharp left turn. There were two port-o-potties located at that corner. I knew it wasn’t far to the last aid station. I needed to make a bathroom stop. I was worried that I couldn’t afford the time. I was also worried that stopping, even briefly, would take me out of my rhythm and let my legs stiffen up. I also knew that I needed to pee, and I couldn’t hold it all the way to the finish. I had to stop somewhere, and this was the best place to stop.
As I emerged from the port-o-potty, “math guy” caught up to me. We were beginning a downhill section. It was the only part of the trail that had rocks instead of roots. This wasn’t the best place to have to work back into my pace. So far, all five of my falls had soft landings. If I tripped on a rock, I would likely hit another rock. The good news is that it’s easier to avoid the rocks. Unlike roots, they don’t go all the way across the trail.
It wasn’t easy, but I managed to keep up with “math guy.” He now thought we were both on pace to break 10, but he wouldn’t know the remaining distance for sure until we reached the aid station. We were almost there.
Soon, I saw the park road. I accelerated into the aid station. As I crossed the road, I felt like I was dancing over the pavement. While a volunteer was filling my bottle, Stefanie asked me how I felt. I said, “Crappy, but I’m on a push to break 10 hours.” I asked her how far it was to the finish. Someone answered, “4.4 miles.”
My watch read 8:59 and change. I had one hour to run 4.4 miles. 1 couldn’t do the math precisely, but I knew 13 minute miles would be fast enough. I took off.
Leaving the aid station, I had about a mile and a half of easily runnable trail. A good portion of it was uphill, but there were few, if any, roots. I ran it as hard as I could. I felt like I was running 10 minute miles. I wasn’t running that fast in the first loop.
For the past few miles, I had been running hard enough to produce endorphins. Endorphins are natural painkillers. I was no longer feeling the sore muscles. I was now passing everyone I saw.
As I got closer to the lake, I had to run the same rooty section where I had two falls on the previous loop. As I started seeing roots, I told myself that I couldn’t slow down, but I also couldn’t afford to have another fall. As soon as I had that thought, I was on the ground.
There’s another big difference between rocks and roots. When you trip on a rock, you still have forward momentum. You stumble forward, out of control. You might fall or you might regain your balance. When you catch your foot on a root, your foot immediately stops. The rest of your body stops too. Feeling my foot hit that root and feeing my body slam into the ground were simultaneous. This landing felt much harder than the others. I had a superficial scrape on the side of my knee, but otherwise I was uninjured.
I wasted no time getting up. It wasn’t easy to get going again, but I forced myself to do it. The impact of the fall aggravated all my sore muscles. Now I felt them again. In fact, they all hurt twice as much.
I ran the best pace I could with my newly sore muscles. I managed to avoid any more falls. There are a few sections of boardwalk near the lake. When I reached them, I knew I was past the worst of the roots. I was trying to remember if there was one more uphill section. The finish is downhill, so there had to be. On cue, the trail turned away from the lake and started climbing. I was tired, but I was determined to keep up the pace. If I could hold the pace going uphill just a little bit longer, I’d surely be able to hold it on the downhill.
I passed another runner, and he picked up his pace to stay with me. I asked him if he knew how far it was to the finish and told him I was hoping to break 10 hours. He said he thought it was about a mile. I looked at my watch. If he was right, it wouldn’t even be close. I was way ahead of the pace. I still poured it on. When I made the last turn and saw the finish, I broke into an all-out sprint.
I wasn’t sprinting for time. I knew I was going to break 10 by a wide margin. I wasn’t sprinting to celebrating the finish. I was sprinting to celebrate the fact that I could sprint. Two hours earlier I couldn’t run a 13-minute mile to save my life. Now I was sprinting.
I finished in 9:44:30. I averaged 10 minute miles for the last 4.4, even with the fall. It took a few minutes to catch my breath. The Rocky Raccoon 100 has belt buckles, which is the tradition for 100 mile races. This race has a finisher medal.
After finishing, I finally had time to look around and see all the other food at the finish line aid station. There was lots of good food, but I seek out the foods I don’t always see at other races. I started with pickle spears. I didn’t take any electrolyte pills during the race, and pickles are loaded with salt. I also had some pumpkin pie.
I saw something else in the finish area that you don’t see every day. I’m sure there’s a story behind this sign, but I didn’t want to know.
Before leaving, I got to know a few of the runners who I had seen on the course at different times. I also met a runner who used to live in Minnesota and was wearing a Run Minnesota shirt.
It was a 30 minute drive back to Conroe. It took longer than usual to get cleaned up. My legs were much more sore than usual, even for an ultra. I didn’t go to dinner until 7:30. I fell asleep within 30 minutes of getting back to the hotel. I slept well that night.
In the morning, my legs were really stiff and sore. My right quad was much stiffer than my left quad. That’s unusual. I think the soreness was asymmetrical, because it wasn’t just from the running. Some of the soreness was the result of tripping, stumbling and falling. The last time I fell, I took some of the impact with my right leg.
Was it smart to plop a 50 mile race into a race schedule that includes marathons almost every weekend? Probably not. Was it smart to do a trail race without any training on trails? Almost certainly not. My goal was to get out of my comfort zone. At that I definitely succeeded.
Freidrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” This race hurt, but it didn’t kill me. It will make me stronger. That was the point.