Sunday, February 26, 2017

Race Report: 2017 Cowtown Marathon

It’s been three weeks since the Rocky Raccoon 100.  That’s as long as I’m willing to go between marathons, because I used them as my long training runs.  I considered doing the Post Oak Challenge in Tulsa, but that seemed like too much, too soon.  As I looked at easier races, the Cowtown Marathon in Fort Worth, TX quickly became the leading candidate.  I’ve never done this race before, but some of my friends have done it, and they all seem to like it.  (OK, they did have to cancel the race two years ago because of an ice storm, but that was an unusually bad storm.)

It seems like my race schedule for this year is being dictated by airfares.  I’ve had to pass on a few races I really wanted to do, because the airfares were too expensive.  I’ve also booked some unexpected international trips, because I discovered outrageously cheap airfares.  When I priced flights to Dallas/Fort Worth for this weekend, I was pleased to see a nice affordable airfare.  That made the decision easy.

In addition to the marathon, they have a 50K, a half marathon, a 10K, two 5Ks (one for adults, one for children), a half marathon, and a 50K.  Altogether, these races have about 30,000 participants.  I had no idea this was such a large event.

I stayed at a hotel near the medical center, just south of I-30.  I considered staying downtown, but the hotels were more expensive, and I would have to pay for parking.  Where I stayed, there weren’t as many nearby restaurants, but I was only a few miles from where the race started and finished.

The expo was held at the Will Rogers Memorial Center, which was also the start/finish location.  After checking into my hotel, I drove to the expo to pick up my race packet.  There were several parking ramps and lots we could use for free.  I drove to the Western Heritage Garage and found a long line of cars waiting to get in.  Apparently there was another event going on besides the expo, and people were also parking for that.  Once I parked, it was easy to get to the expo, and packet pickup was quick and efficient.  This race gives you two T-shirts.  I got this short sleeved shirt with my race packet.  There was also a long-sleeved shirt that we would get later for finishing.

After the expo, I visited the Fort Worth Stockyards Historic District.  Located about three miles north of downtown, this used to the regional marketplace for cattle, sheep and hogs.  Now it’s a shopping and entertainment district that preserves the image of Fort Worth as “Cowtown.”  In addition to shops, bars and restaurants, it’s home to rodeos and the Texas Cowboy Fall of Fame.  Twice a day, they hold reenactments of cattle drives.  I was there to see them move this small herd of longhorn cattle down Exchange Avenue.

I had dinner at Chimera Brewing Company.  Before a trip, I often use Google maps to scout for pizza places near my hotel.  I knew I found the right one when I read this description on their website:

“We make beer.  That is what we are passionate about.  We are also passionate about our traditional Italian pizza using dough and sauce made in house.  And unicorns.  We love unicorns.”

For my pre-race dinner, I opted for this brie and speck pizza.  I also sampled a few of their beers.  I wore a Boston Marathon shirt, because unicorns.

I was able to get to sleep early, but I only slept for a few hours.  After that, I couldn’t get back to sleep.  At 4:00, I finally gave up on sleeping and started getting ready for the race.  I wanted to park in the Western Heritage Garage again, because it’s right next to the starting line, and I knew I could get in and out without crossing any streets that are blocked off for the race.  After seeing the line of cars to get into this ramp on Saturday, I didn’t want to take any chances.

The race didn’t start until 7:00, but I left the hotel around 5:15. When I got to the parking ramp, there were multiple volunteers directing cars to the closest parking spots.  By 5:30, I was parked.

They had a gear check, but it was more convenient to just leave my warm-up clothes in my car.  First, I needed to make a bathroom stop.  I expected to have to walk over to the start corrals to find port-o-potties.  Instead, there were six of them right outside the exit from the parking ramp.  That could not have been more convenient.

It was 40 degrees at the start, but there was enough wind to make it feel much colder.  I wore tights, gloves, arm warmers, and a warm hat.  Even with all that, I still felt cold when I went outside.  I waited as long as possible before leaving my car to line up for the start.

I was in the second corral.  I could see the 3:45 pace group, but I didn’t want to start that fast.  I wasn’t sure yet if I was going to set a time goal for this race.  If I did, it would be four hours at the fastest.  I saw the 4:00 pace group lined up in corral three.  I couldn’t start with them either.

After the first corral started, my corral started moving into position.  The announcer said he hoped we could have a “clean start” like the first corral did.  I quickly found out what he meant by that.  The spacing between corrals was intended to give us every opportunity to run at our own pace without being slowed down by congestion.  By the time I crossed the starting line, we were already running.  By the end of the first block, everyone could run at their own pace.  That’s a clean start.

I didn’t have a goal pace in mind.  My tentative plan was to keep the pace comfortable for the first half of the race.  I could always set goals later, after seeing how I felt.  I could see the 3:45 group gradually pulling away.  That’s good.  I knew I shouldn’t try to keep up with them.

I mostly ran at the same pace as the people around me.  I was running with the herd.  Every so often, I would ask myself if the pace felt comfortable and sustainable.  For the most part, it did, but I could feel some tightness in my left hamstring. I also noticed that on Saturday, just walking around.  It wasn’t a big deal, but it was something to watch.

The mile markers were low to the ground, and I missed the first five.  When I got to the six mile sign, I checked my watch.  My pace was just under nine minutes per mile.  That put me on pace to break four hours.  For the time being, I felt comfortable with that pace, but I had two long-term concerns.  First, my left hamstring still felt tight.  I had hoped it would feel better as I got warmed up.  I had to be careful not to run too fast.

My other concern was the weather.  It was going to warm up about 10 degrees by the time I finished.  For now, I couldn’t imagine wearing anything less, but I might feel overdressed later in the race.

In the next mile, we ran through the stockyards.  We ran right down Exchange Avenue, which is where I watched the cattle drive on Saturday.  There were quite a few spectators there.  We were a much larger “herd.”  I wonder if we were as interesting to watch.

A section of Exchange Avenue is paved with bricks, but over the years they’ve worn unevenly.  They felt like cobblestones.  Nevertheless, this was my favorite part of the course.

After leaving the stockyards, we ran toward downtown.  I missed two more mile markers, but saw the one for nine miles.  I checked my watch again.  I sped up over the last three miles.  The pace still felt comfortable, but I was still in “wait and see” mode.

There was a long gradual hill just before we got into the downtown area.  After the hill, I felt my hamstring tighten.  It eventually loosened up again, but I noticed the same thing after each hill.

In general, the course wasn’t flat, but it also didn’t strike me as hilly.  There were hills from time to time, but they were all either short or gradual.  There aren’t any “heartbreak” hills on this course.

Downtown, I started to see people walking.  Since the start of the race, the marathon and half marathon had been together.  For runners doing the half marathon, there were only four miles to go.  They were getting into the “tough” miles.

Just before leaving downtown, the two courses split.  At some races, half marathoners vastly outnumber marathoners.  That didn’t seem to be the case here.  After the split, there were still enough runners around me that I could continue to run with the herd.

For a mile or two, I didn’t know where we were.  Then I saw a building I recognized.  It was Chimera Brewing Company, where I had dinner on Saturday.  We were running down Magnolia Avenue.  I started to smell barbecue, and I knew immediately where the smell was coming from.  It was a popular barbecue restaurant I had walked past on my way to and from dinner.  They weren’t open yet, but the meat was already cooking.  You could smell it from a block away.  That got me thinking.  Would my post-race dinner be pizza, or would I have to have barbecue instead?

After two more turns, I noticed the name of the street was Park Place.  Three weeks ago, I did another race in Texas that had boardwalks.  Was I doing the Texas version of Monopoly?

Just before the 13 mile mark, I saw a beer stop.  I’ll typically stop for beer if I don’t care about my time, but I won’t if I’m pressing for a fast time.  I still wasn’t sure if I would try to break four hours.  The cups were small.  They only held about two ounces of beer.  I figured two ounces wouldn’t hurt my race, so I stopped for one.

I reached the halfway mark in 1:56:19.  I was on pace to break four hours by a wide margin.  I reluctantly set a goal of breaking four, but I wouldn’t necessarily run as fast in the second half as I had in the first half.

With each mile marker, my confidence grew.  The remaining distance seemed more and more manageable, but the pace still felt OK.  Subconsciously, I sped up.  I noticed I was starting to pass some of the other runners.  I could also see from my splits that I was getting faster.

With about nine miles to go, I saw another beer stop.  This time, I skipped it.  Now I was in race mode.

The volunteers at this race were excellent.  They were helpful and enthusiastic, and they all seemed to know what they were doing.  The spectators were also good.  The crowds weren’t huge, but they had a lot of enthusiasm.  Our names were on our race bibs, and several people encouraged me by name.

It’s getting more and more common for spectators to hold up amusing signs.  I saw two signs saying “Don’t poop.”  One had a drawing that looked like a poop emoji.  The woman holding that sign saw the name on my bib and yelled, “Go, David.”  I felt like I was getting mixed messages.  She was telling me to go, but her sign was telling me not to “go.”

Every mile, I figured out what pace I needed to break four hours.  With 7.2, miles to go, 10 minutes per mile would be fast enough.  As I got more confident, I picked up my effort.  I was no longer running with the herd.  Now I was gradually passing everyone around me.

I was still noticing my hamstring.  It didn’t hurt, but it was tight from my butt to my knee.  I had to be a little bit careful.

With about five miles to go, I caught up to a runner wearing a green shirt.  He was focused on finishing strong.  I got close to him, but I never passed him.  Then he started to pull away.  I tried to keep him in sight.

At 22 miles, I realized I could break four hours just by running 11 minutes per mile.  If I could run 10 minutes per mile for rest of the way, I would average nine minute miles for the whole race.  Then it occurred to me that I could run negative splits if I sustained my current pace.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to press that hard.  I was worried about the hamstring.

I passed another beer stop.  This one was the Fort Worth Hash House Harriers.  Their cups were larger and full of beer.  I couldn’t risk it.

At one of the aid stations, a volunteer said “Only 5K to go.”  Could that be right?  Did I miss the 23 sign.  It was a long time before I saw another mile marker.  When I did, it was 24 miles.

During that mile, a spectator yelled. “Don’t back down now.”  I’ve often remarked that spectators don’t know the right things to say to encourage the runners. This one did.  That’s exactly the right thing to say with two or three miles to go.  Unfortunately, my hamstring was giving me a different message.  It was saying, “Maybe it would be smart to back down now.”

I checked my watch again.  My pace over the previous two miles was slower than nine minutes.  At first I was discouraged.  Then I realized I would run negative splits if I finished the last 2.2 miles in 22 minutes.  I might be slowing down, but I knew I could do that.  For the first time, negative splits became a firm goal.

I was still falling behind “green shirt guy,” but as he moved up through the field, I was also passing all the same runners.  If I could keep passing people, I’d be fast enough.

I was starting to get really hot now.  I had already taken off my gloves.  In theory, I could take off my arm warmers, but it’s hard to do that on the run.  I felt sweat under my hat.  I felt sweat under my arm warmers.  I felt sweat under my T-shirt, and it was causing some chaffing on my left side.  I decided to tough it out.

We were running on a bike path that follows a stream.  Then we made a U-turn onto the adjacent street.  Suddenly, I felt the cold wind.  Before, it was at my back.  Now, it was a headwind.  I wasn’t hot any more.

At 25 miles, I knew negative splits was in the bank.  Then I realized I might be able to beat another goal.  My fastest time last year was 3:36:39, but that was on a point-to-point course that was all downhill.  My fastest recent time on a loop course was 3:51:00.  With 1.2 miles to go, breaking 3:51 was definitely doable.

With about one mile to go, I passed the last aid station.  Now that I was no longer hot, I was confident I could skip this one.  In the distance, I could hear someone talking over a loudspeaker.  Could I be close enough to hear the finish area?

I eventually saw a race official in the middle of the street, using the loudspeaker to shout out encouragement.  He said we had about a half mile to go.  After two quick turns, someone else said we had about half a mile to go.  At least one of them was wrong.

I started to pass lots of walkers.  I was moving through the back of the pack of the half marathon. I never noticed where the two courses came together again.

I saw a turn in the distance.  I assumed it was the last turn before the finish line.  I was wrong.  After turning, I saw the 26 mile sign, but I still didn’t see the finish line.  There was one more turn.  I checked my watch.  I was going to break 3:50.

Just before the last turn, I saw the 13 mile sign for the half marathon.  I checked my watch again.  I was definitely going to break 3:50.

I crossed the line in 3:49:33.  It was my fastest time on an honest course in almost two years.  I also ran negative splits by about three minutes.  Maybe waiting until halfway before setting goals is something I should do more often.

As soon as I finished, I looked for a volunteer with a heat shield, so I could wrap myself in it.  Without it, I’d get cold awfully fast.  It was still windy.  Next, I got my finisher medal.  It’s part of a multi-year series.  If you collect medals from enough consecutive years, they can be joined to form a larger design.

I probably won’t come back for enough years to collect the set, but there were a lot of things I liked about this race.  Some of them were right in the finish area.

They had a tent in the finish area where you could get your result.  I knew what time my watch read, but it’s always nice to know what your timing chip said.

In addition to the heat shields, they were handing out light blue jackets made of non-woven polypropylene.  They had long sleeves and hoods, and they zipped in the front.  I’ve seen these types of jackets in Atlanta and Indianapolis.  They’re great for keeping you warm in the finish area.  They’re also good for rain.  They’re intended as throwaway jackets, but if you save them, they make great warm-up jackets for other races.   I think this one will be coming with me to Boston in April.

The post-race food line was indoors.  At the beginning of the line, they handed you a bag.  Then you could collect whatever food you wanted without running out of hands.  It’s a small thing, but it’s one more thing that they did right.

Next, I got my finisher shirt.  I almost forgot I was getting another shirt.  This one had long sleeves, so I could wear it to dinner.

After finishing, my hamstring immediately felt fine.  When I got back to the hotel, I took a hot bath and worked on my hamstrings with a massage stick.  I don’t think anything is torn.  Tight hamstrings have been a chronic problem for me.  I’ll have to be careful about speed work, but otherwise, I should be OK.

This race was a pleasant surprise.  By the end of April, I’d like to qualify for next year’s Boston Marathon.  I’m not ready yet, but I may be closer than I thought.

Now I have to decide what to have for dinner.  Will it be pizza or barbecue?  Maybe I can find a barbecue pizza.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  3:49:33
Average Pace:  8:45
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  329

Monday, February 6, 2017

Race Report: 2017 Rocky Raccoon 100

On February 4-5, I ran the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Trail Run.  I wanted to do this race for two reasons.  First, it’s a Western States qualifier, and I need to start getting tickets in the lottery if I’m every going to get another chance to do that race.  Second, I’m doing the Bighorn Mountain 100 later this year, and I wanted to do an “easy” 100 before attempting a mountain 100.

“Easy” is a relative term.  I say that only because this race is near sea level and doesn’t have any big climbs.  It still challenges you in other ways.  In particular, this course is notorious for all the roots.

Two years ago, I ran the Rocky 50, which uses the same trails.  I tripped on roots dozens of times, and I fell six times.  After my recent experience at the Four Corners Quad, I was nervous about tripping and having another bad fall.

The course is a 20 mile loop on trails in Huntsville State Park in Texas.  You run the same loop five times.  That makes the logistics fairly simple.  There are two locations where you can have drop bags.  I figured I could get by just fine with one drop bag in the start/finish area.  I could also park my car near the start and know it would be there when I finished.  That makes it easy to do this race without a crew.

Having done the Rocky 50, I had seen these trails before.  The loop used for the 100 is slightly different than the loop used for the 50, but after running it once, I would know exactly what to expect on the next four laps.  That familiarity is helpful when you get to the nighttime hours of the race.

The time limit was 30 hours, and I was prepared to use all of it.  My number one concern was avoiding tripping on the roots.  Realistically, the only way I could do that is to walk wherever there are roots.  That’s most of the course.  My plan was to run the sections with the fewest roots and walk the rest.  If I took 30 hours, so be it.  After DNFs in my last three 100 mile trail runs, I just wanted to make sure I finished.  I wasn’t setting any time goals; DFL would be just fine.

I stayed at a hotel in Huntsville, which is about nine miles from the park.  The closest major airport was in Houston.  When I priced flights to Houston for this weekend, I just about blew a gasket.  Did I mention the Super Bowl was this weekend?  Did I mention the Super Bowl was in Houston?  Usually, if you book a few months in advance, a direct flight from Minneapolis to Houston is $400-500.  Not for Super Bowl weekend.  The fares started at $1,163, and that was for the most inconvenient flight times.  I didn’t even want to know how expensive it would be to get a flight time that worked for me.

Fortunately, I had enough Delta SkyMiles for a free flight.  I had to use more miles than usual, but it was still a much better deal than paying for the flight.  I checked again more recently, and the airfares weren’t nearly as expensive as they were last fall, but I was still better off using my miles.

I flew to Houston Friday morning, arriving around noon.  Then I drove to Huntsville.  After checking into my hotel, I drove to Huntsville State Park for packet pickup and the pre-race briefing.  Then I had dinner and got some much needed sleep.  I wasn’t planning to sleep during the race, so I had to get sleep while I could.

The race started at 6:00 AM on Saturday.  I had until noon on Sunday to finish.  I arrived at the park early, so I could find a parking spot that wasn’t too far away.  I made my way to the start and put my drop bag in the start/finish area.

It was 46 degrees at the start, with a forecast high in the upper 50s.  That’s fine for non-stop running, but it’s downright chilly when you’re walking.  I dressed in layers.  For my base layer, I wore shorts and a T-shirt.  Then I added gloves, arm warmers, and wind pants, which I could remove if I got too warm.  I made a last-minute decision to also wear a Tyvek jacket, since I felt cold standing around in the start area.

They made pre-race check-in easy.  The race is chip timed, so you’re automatically checked in when you cross the chip mat at the start.  The chip is on an ankle strap.  I wore mine over my wind pants, because I was worried it might not pick up if it was covered up.

It was still dark, so I started the race carrying a flashlight.  I had a headlamp for the night, but I didn’t wear it on my first lap, because I knew it would only be dark for the first hour.  During that first hour, I held the flashlight low with my right hand and kept it focused right in front of me.  I was always watching out for roots.

I started near the back.  In the first lap, the early miles were congested.  That initially forced me to walk. That was fine, because I was planning to mostly walk the first hour anyway.

After a while, things loosened up enough for the people in front of me to start running slowly.  There weren’t any roots right in front of me, so I ran too.  In general, I found I could trust the runners ahead of me in the first few miles.  Where there were lots of roots, they slowed to a walk.  Where there were only a few small roots, they ran.  At the slow pace we were going, I had no trouble avoiding the occasional root, so I decided to go with the flow.

My nutrition plan was fairly simple.  I was supposed to fill my bottle with Tailwind at each aid station and drink whenever I felt thirsty.  At aid stations, I was supposed to eat PBJs.  I know they don’t upset my stomach, and they provide a nice mix of sugar, starch, protein and fat.

After a few miles, we reached the Nature Center aid station.  I had taken a couple drinks, but my bottle was still more than half full.  Rather than top it off, I skipped the aid station.  I forgot I was supposed to stop and eat a PBJ.

As we got back on the trails, we started to spread out.  Now I made my own decisions about where to run and where to walk.  There were a couple of level sections with no roots.  I went ahead and ran these.  Everywhere else, I walked.

After about an hour, there was enough light to see without my headlamp.  About this time, we came out onto a dirt road called Dam Road.  This was a nice place to stop and put my flashlight into my fanny pack.  I also took off my Tyvek jacket and tied it around my waist.  I was too warm with the jacket.  It seemed colder when we were in the start area, but that’s near the lake, where we were more exposed to wind.  Most of the course was sheltered from wind by the trees.

We followed Dam Road for about a mile to get to the “Damnation” aid station.  The road was the most runnable part of the course, so I ran all the way to the aid station.

At Damnation, I remembered to eat a PBJ.  I also topped off my bottle. After that, I always filled my bottle whether I needed to or not.

After Damnation, we began a seven mile trail loop.  The first mile was an out-and-back section, and I started to see runners coming back who had already completed the loop.  The first few runners were blazing fast.  After a few minutes, we started to see a few more fast runners, including the lead woman.  There were fewer than ten fast runners.  Then it was a long time before we saw anyone else coming back.

This race was the USATF 100 Mile Trail Championship.  That’s why there seemed to be such a huge gulf between the fastest runners and everyone else.

Now that it was daylight, I ran sections where I was reasonably confident I could avoid the roots.  Where I was unsure, I walked.  When I ran, I had a relaxed gait.  I ran cautiously, because there was always a chance I might catch my foot on a root.

The flattest sections of trail tended to have the fewest roots, but you still had to watch out for smaller roots that might be hidden by leaves or pine needles.

Where the trail sloped up or down, there were exposed roots.  The steeper the slope, the more roots were exposed.  That’s because there was more erosion there from runoff.

I found myself running on level sections, as well as those with a slight downward slope.  I walked anything that was uphill, as well as the steeper downhills.  On those, I had to be careful stepping down.

After the seven mile loop, we came back to the Damnation aid station.  This was the only aid station we visited twice per lap.  Everywhere else, I could easily get by with one bottle, but I wasn’t sure about this loop.  I started the race carrying one bottle, but I had another in my drop bag.  I never needed the second bottle.  As it turns out, I never reached any aid station with an empty bottle.

Coming back from Damnation, we had a longer section along Dam Road.  The road was hilly, and I had to take walking breaks on the long uphill segments.  At one point, I almost tripped on a rock.  I was talking to two other runners, and I let myself drift into the center of the road where there were some loose rocks.  Luckily, I regained my balance.  It would have been embarrassing to have a fall on the easiest part of the course.

After a short trail segment, we got to the Park Road aid station.  This was where I was most apt to deviate from the “always eat PBJs” plan.  Here, I tended to make impulsive decisions to eat comfort food instead.  Sometimes I had grilled cheese.  Other times, I had bacon.

The trail segment after the Park Road aid station eventually merged with the trails we ran at the beginning of each lap.  We had a long section near the lake with two-way traffic.

I made it through the first lap without tripping and falling.  My time for the first lap was 4:22.  That was faster than I expected, but largely because I wasn’t originally expecting to do any running in the dark.

The aid station at the start/finish was called “Dogwood.”  After my first lap, I spent five minutes at Dogwood.  I put my flashlight back in my drop bag and picked up my camera.  The next lap was a daytime lap, so this was the best time to take pictures.  I also discarded my wind pants, arm warmers and jacket.  It took a while to take off the wind pants, because I didn’t want to remove my shoes.  I also had to move my timing chip from the pants to my ankle.

My second lap was the only one that was entirely during the day.  This was my designated “take pictures” lap, so all of my pictures of the course were actually taken during lap two.  Here are some examples of the roots.

Early in this lap, I tripped on a root and fell.  It’s possible I wasn’t paying close enough attention to my footing, because I was thinking about which pictures to take.  I did a tuck and roll, landing on my back.  I landed in soft dirt and pine needles, so I didn’t hurt myself.  I brushed the dirt off my gloves and continued running.

Within a mile, I tripped on another root.  This time I fought to regain my balance.  I didn’t fall, but I had an awkward landing that put a lot of strain on my left leg.  I felt it all through my left hamstring.  Often, tripping and not falling can be worse than tripping and falling.

I walked for a minute to see if my hamstring would start to feel better.  Then I started running very slowly.  It didn’t feel good.  There are a few benches on this section of the course.  The next time I passed a bench, I used it to stretch my hamstring.  I think that helped a little, but my running felt slightly impaired for a while.

In some trail races, you need to pay close attention to the trail markers, or you’ll get lost.  Thankfully, that’s not the case here.  It’s easy to see where the trail is.  Where trails intersect, they make it easy to see which way to go.  This course is marked like crazy.  That made it easier to pay attention to the roots.  I rarely had to look up.

Early and late in each lap, we had some good views of the lake.

Near the lake and in a few other areas, they had sections of boardwalk.  In wet years, these parts of the trail probably get washed out.  That wasn’t an issue this year.  The trails were dry.  In some areas, it felt like running in loose sand.

You never trip on big roots like these ones.  The ones that get you are the smaller roots you don’t notice.

When I got to the Nature Center aid station for the second time, they had sausage and cheese quesadillas.  It might not be as safe a choice as a PBJ, but I couldn’t resist.

The trails on the other side of the lake gave us some different views.  It was more of a wilderness area.  I wouldn’t want to get lost on this side of the park.

I always looked forward to getting back to the Damnation aid station.  That’s partly because the loop on the middle of each lap was so long, but also because it was so difficult.  You could see the aid station from a distance away.  The approach was uphill, but runnable.

The other aid stations weren’t visible from as far away, but you could always tell when you were getting close.  You would either hear the commotion or start seeing signs.

The section of trails after the Park Road aid station had an area that was washed out.  Here there weren’t many roots, but you had to pick which side to run on.

As I got back by the lake, I realized that the end of each lap is deceptively long.  When you cross the last boardwalk, you’re still about a mile and a half from Dogwood.  As the crow flies, you’re almost close enough to see it, but the course makes several turns before you get there.  In subsequent laps, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t as close as I thought.

I got through the first two laps in 9:13.  After my second lap, I returned my camera to my drop bag and picked up the flashlight again.  For now, it was still light out, but I knew it would get dark before I finished my third lap.

Early in my third lap, I felt something get into the back of my right shoe.  For the first time, I regretted not wearing gaiters.  I couldn’t tell if it was a small rock, a wood chip, or a pine needle, but the back of my heel hurt.  Within a minute or two it worked its way under my foot and then to the side.  Now the side of my foot hurt.  I kept running until I reached one of the benches.  Then I sat down to take off my shoe.  It was a pine needle.  Tying my shoe again wasn’t easy.  The laces were permeated with dust, making them stiff.

For the first half of that lap, I was trying to push the pace and run as much as I could.  My goal was to get as far as possible before it got dark.  During the night, it would be a completely different race.

When I got to the Damnation aid station, the volunteers were asking me if I had a light.  You could have a drop bag at Damnation, and many of the runners were picking up their flashlights or headlamps there.  I already had my flashlight in my fanny pack, but they couldn’t see that.  The volunteers wanted to make sure nobody started the long loop without a light.  It was going to be dark before we could complete the loop, and you don’t want to be on those trails without a light.  At night, it’s completely dark.

I made good time on the first half of the loop.  I made the turn at the far end and started back.  Coming back, there are more roots.  I ran where I could, but had to walk more frequently.  Then finally, it got dark.  After that, I was limited to only walking for the next two miles.  Even with a flashlight, running would be too risky.  There were just too many roots on this part of the course.

From time to time, I started to notice some light drizzle.  I could barely feel it under the canopy of trees.  The forecast including a passing shower, but I wasn’t expecting it until about 3 AM.  Fortunately, the drizzle never amounted to much, and it didn’t last long.

After it got dark, a harsh reality set in.  I’ve run through the night several times, but usually in summer races, when it’s only dark for eight or nine hours.  Here, the night was longer than the day.

In theory, I had more than enough time to walk for the rest of the race.  That’s assuming I could do a standard three miles per hour walking pace.  In practice, the roots force you to step over them carefully.  That takes you out of your rhythm and slows you down.  I didn’t know what pace I was actually walking, but I worried it was much slower than 20 minutes per mile.  Would I get as slow as 25 or 30 minutes per mile?  I just didn’t know.  To make sure my average pace was fast enough, I still tried to run where I could.  There just weren’t many places where I could run safely in the dark.

After I got back onto the out-and-back section of the loop, it was easier to recognize where I was.  As I began a treacherous downhill section, I knew I was getting close to a pair of bridges.  From there, it wasn’t far to Damnation.  After crossing the bridges, I quickly saw the glow of the lights at the aid station.  I remembered this section was runnable.  It was uphill, but I ran most of it.

When I got onto the road, I had more opportunities to run.  Where it was uphill, I was forced to take walking breaks, but I ran as much as I could.

When I got back onto trails again, I had to be more cautious.  I established a “safe running” protocol.  Whenever I could see roots, I walked.  I shined my flashlight just in front of me.  When I no longer saw roots, I would shine it further up the trail.  If I couldn’t see any roots for at least 30 feet, it was safe to run.  I couldn’t run very often, but I ran where I could.

One place I could always run was on the boardwalks.  Most of them were short, but there were about five sections of boardwalk near the lake.  There were also several boardwalks and bridges on other parts of the course.  For the rest of the night I made a point of running every bridge or boardwalk.

With about two miles to go in my third lap, my flashlight started to act flaky.  First it got too dim.  Then it sometimes blinked out completely.  I didn’t know if I had a loose contact or if my batteries were getting too weak.  I could get by with a dim light, but I would be limited to only walking.  If it went out completely, I was screwed.  The trail had lots of turns and bends.  Without a light, it would be difficult to even stay on the trail.  Avoiding roots would be impossible.

The dial to turn on the flashlight was close to the place where it unscrews to replace the bulb.  It’s possible I accidentally loosened it.  After fiddling with it a few times, I was able to get the light to stay on.  I still didn’t trust it though.  I started pushing the envelope on my “safe running” rules.  I wanted to finish this loop as quickly as possible, in case my batteries were going dead.  If I didn’t have light, nothing was safe.

I must have pushed the envelope a little too far.  I tripped on a root and fell.  I rolled onto my back as I fell.  I didn’t hit anything hard.  It just shook me up.  Another runner helped me up.  As I resumed running, I went back to my “safe running” rules.

My time after three laps was 14:53.  I stopped to put on my headlamp.  I no longer trusted my flashlight, but I kept it in my fanny pack as a backup.  I also got the plastic rain poncho from my drop bag and put it in my fanny pack in case it started to rain.  I also took the time to put my wind pants on again.  During my third lap, my legs started to get cold.  I could feel my hamstrings getting tight in both legs.  I risked being too warm with wind pants, but they helped keep my legs warm.

I was pleased to get through the first 60 miles in 15 hours.  That gave me 15 more hours for the last 40 miles.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but at this point I was all but assured of finishing.  I just had to keep moving.

As I headed back out, I realized my timing chip was still on my ankle.  I heard a chirp as I crossed the timing mat, so it must have been able to pick up my chip through the wind pants.  After that, I always lifted my pant leg as I crossed the mat, just to make sure.

My headlamp was nice and bright.  It lit up a wider area than my flashlight, making it easy to see the roots right in front of me.  It was also nice to have my hands free.  That made it easier to drink.  The disadvantage was not being able to see farther up the trail.  Now I couldn’t run as much.  I still made a point of running all the boardwalks, but other than that, there weren’t many places where I felt safe running on the trails.

I was about two miles into that lap, when I was passed by a group of women who were power walking.  My own walking pace had been pathetically slow, so I challenged myself to keep up with them.  It wasn’t too hard where there weren’t any roots, but I sometimes fell behind when I had to step carefully over some of the larger roots.  Then I had to run briefly to catch up.  My running pace was just barely faster than their walking pace.

I stayed with the power walkers for the next few miles.  Then they decided to do some running.  We were on a flat section with no roots, so I ran too.  As we got to some small roots, I had to switch back to a fast walk.  Then we reached some bigger roots, and I had to switch back to a slow walk as I carefully stepped over the roots.  That caused me to fall way behind them.  Then I was on my own again.

On Dam Road, I was able to do some running again, but only where it was downhill.  Uphill, I had to settle for a brisk walk.  When I reached the Damnation aid station, I checked my watch.  So far, I was averaging 17 minutes per mile on this lap.  If I kept that up, I could do a six hour lap.

As I returned to the trails to begin the long loop, I challenged myself to walk as quickly as I could.  Where I used to run, I now walked as briskly as I could.  When I had to slow down to step over roots, I forced myself to get back into my pace as quickly as I could.  I ran the occasional bridge or boardwalk, just so I could tell myself I was still doing run/walk.

Throughout the loop, I sometimes felt a light drizzle.  Sometimes it seemed like just a mist.  As long as it didn’t turn into a steady rain, it was no big deal.

Late in the loop, I recognized the downhill that comes before the bridges.  Although I wasn’t running, I was walking at a hurried pace.  I was excited about getting back down to the bridges, knowing I was almost back to the aid station.  In my haste, I tripped on one of the roots.  I stumbled forward for several awkward strides before finally regaining my balance.  I tweaked my left hamstring again.  This was a case where not falling was bad, but falling might have been worse.  When you stumble forward going downhill, you pick up speed.  Here there were so many big roots, that I’m sure I would have had a hard landing.

I checked my watch again when I got back to the aid station.  On the long loop, I averaged 18 minutes per mile.

During the loop, I had noticed some puffiness in my fingers.  That’s usually a symptom of hyponatremia.  I had electrolyte pills in my drop bag, but I never remembered to transfer them to my fanny pack, so I wasn’t taking them.  I didn’t think it would be a big deal, because I wasn’t drinking as much as I usually do during a race.  To get some salt, I drank a cup of soup broth at Damnation.  Then one of the volunteers asked me if I wanted something to eat.  I didn’t know if I had room for a PBJ, but I saw some small plastic cups filled with pickles.  I ate the pickles to get more salt.

On Dam Road, I mostly walked.  I was willing to run anything downhill, but the road rarely felt like it was downhill, and without more light I couldn’t actually see the hills.

As I got near the Park Road aid station, the volunteers could see my light and got excited that a runner was coming.  They were making noise to encourage me.  In my best drill sergeant voice, I yelled, “I can’t HEAR you.”

My fingers were still puffy.  I didn’t feel like drinking more broth yet, but this was my comfort food station, so I had both grilled cheese and bacon.

On the last section of trails, I started to feel isolated.  The trails near the lake are constantly turning.  I could see right in front of me, but I couldn’t see around me enough to have any context.  I just didn’t have a good feel for where I was.  More and more, I started to feel like I had tunnel vision.  Then I realized my headlamp wasn’t illuminating a wide area like it was at the beginning of the lap.  My batteries were getting weak.

My headlamp has both a bulb and LEDs.  I had been using the LEDs because they’re brighter, but they also use more power.  After only six hours, they had consumed my batteries.  I had enough light to see the roots, but I had to slow down.

I packed spare batteries, but I forgot to transfer them to my drop bag.  They were back at the hotel room, where they weren’t doing me much good.

My time after four laps was 21:09.  I refilled my bottle and had a PBJ.  The volunteer behind the food table asked me if I needed anything else.  I asked if they had any batteries.  They did.  I replaced the batteries in my headlamp, and I was good to go for the last lap.

As I head out again, I checked the clock.  I still had 8:45 to run 20 miles.  The first 3:45 would be in the dark.  Then I would have daylight for the rest of the race.

In my fifth lap, I felt more and more like I was overdressed.  It didn’t cool off much during the night.  I didn’t regret wearing wind pants, because they helped my hamstrings, but I was also wearing a warm headband under my headlamp.  Between them, they made me much too warm.

I didn’t push my walking pace as much in this lap, because I didn’t want to overheat.  I was drinking more often now.  For the first time in the race, I was constantly feeling thirsty.

By the time I got to Damnation, it was drizzly again.  A volunteer there asked me if I had a jacket.  I told him I had a rain poncho in my fanny pack.  For now, the drizzle felt good, but he wanted to make sure I would be OK if it turned into a cold rain.  The volunteers at this race were all good, but at Damnation, they went out of their way to make sure nobody started that long difficult loop without being prepared.

As a hedge against getting cold, I put on my gloves.  I really struggled to get them on.  I felt like O.J. Simpson.  That’s when I realized it wasn’t just my fingers that were puffy.  My hands were swollen all the way to my wrists.

As I left the aid station, I checked my watch.  It was still about an hour and 45 minutes before it would get light enough to see without my headlamp.

The first half of the loop has several sections that I considered runnable in daylight, but I found myself not even walking them very fast.  Then I realized why.  It was my blisters.  I had numerous blisters around both feet.  Each time I slowed down to step carefully over a root, I had to make an effort to accelerate back to be previous pace.  That made my blisters hurt.  I was subconsciously avoiding those painful accelerations.

After another mile, I reached the most difficult part of the loop.  There were long uphill sections where you had to constantly step up over roots.  Besides taking me out of my rhythm, it was also tiring.  I no longer had the energy to pick up my pace again.  I had roughly 5:20 to run the last 10 miles, but I was crashing and burning.  The constant hills and roots were wearing me down.

The drizzle turned into a steady rain.  I didn’t want to use my rain poncho unless I absolutely had to.  For now, I was OK, but I crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t rain for the rest of the race.

The next two miles seemed to take forever.  Eventually, there was enough light to see, but I could no longer run these trails.  I was relieved when I finally reached the out and back part of the loop, but that section also had quite a few roots.  Nothing was easy now.

When I eventually reached the two short bridges near the end of the loop, I tried to run across.  Suddenly, running made my upper back hurt.  I had a painful knot between my neck and my right shoulder.  I didn’t hurt walking, but it was excruciating when I tried to run.  At first, I wondered if it was from using my right hand to hold a flashlight earlier in the race.  Then it occurred to me that I had been looking down constantly for 25 hours.

The approach to the aid station is runnable, but I had to walk it.  By the time I got there, the rain was stopping.  I never needed the rain poncho.  I stayed at the aid station long enough to have another cup of soup broth.  I also had more pickles.

On Dam Road, I forced myself to run the downhill sections.  It hurt like hell.  Besides my upper back, I also felt my blisters with every step.  I forced myself to do it anyway.  On the uphill sections, I tried to walk fast, but I kept getting passed by other runners who could go faster.

There were quite a few other runners who just wanted to finish and didn’t care if they took the full 30 hours.  During the night, they walked, but now that it was daylight, they were picking up the pace.  Several of them passed me on the road.

At the end of the road, there were port-o-potties.  I had to make a stop.  When I started walking again, I was stiff and slow.

When I got to the Park Road aid station, I asked how far it was to the finish.  They said “Four and a half miles.”  I checked my watch.  I had roughly three hours and ten minutes.  That should be more than enough time, even if I walked slowly.

Leaving the aid station, there was a nice flat section with no roots.  I ran for about a minute.  Then I had to take a walking break.  Then I reached some big roots.  I eventually reached another runnable section, but I asked myself, “Why?”  I had enough time to finish without running.  It’s not just that running was painful.  I was worried about overexerting myself.  Throughout the lap, I increasingly got the impression I was overheating.  I hated to walk the whole way, but I also didn’t want to push myself too hard.

I was walking really slowly now.  We had to go about a mile and a half before joining with the section of trail that we ran at the beginning of each lap.  This section was mostly straight, and it seemed to go on and on.  No matter how far I ran, I could see other runners way off in the distance.

Eventually, I got to the section that winds by the lake.  Even when I was faster, this section seemed deceptively long.  I was moving so slowly now that each mile seemed to take an eternity.  I had plenty of time, but I just wanted to be done.  So did other runners.  Quite a few passed me in the last few miles.

When I could see the lake, I noticed the water was smooth as glass.  There was a layer of fog over the lake.  I wondered if high humidity contributed to my overheating.

I hated how long I was taking, but I didn’t try to rush.  More runners passed me.  I recognized several of them.  It was nice to know that friends I made along the trail were going to finish.  I would join them eventually.  With a little over half a mile to go, the trail gets close to the road.  I had a better feel for how close I was, but it was still slow going.

There’s a hard left turn just before you reach the long finish chute.  I wanted so badly to run to the finish, but I couldn’t.  I was beaten.  As the people in the finish area saw someone was finishing, they cheered.  I still couldn’t run.  I couldn’t even walk fast.

I crossed the line in 28:29:59.  That’s the longest I’ve ever taken to finish 100 miles, but I got it done.  I finally broke that string of DNFs.

This was the 25th Rocky Raccoon 100, and they did something new.  Anyone who had finished the race five times could trade in their belt buckles for a large 500 mile buckle.  That gave them a supply of older buckles.  Runners finishing this year had a choice of a shiny new buckle or one of the vintage styles.  I chose this vintage buckle.

Although I finished this race, it’s obvious that the roots weren’t my only problem.  I crashed and burned like never before.  Overheating may have contributed, but mostly that’s a sign that I’m really not in shape for a 100 mile race.  It’s only recently that I got my mileage up to where it should have been six months ago.  I didn’t have enough of a training base for a race like this.  I have four and a half months to get ready for the Bighorn Mountain 100.  In many ways, that’s a much tougher race.  I’m not sure how I’m going to be ready.

Usually after a race, I’ll stay long enough to eat some post-race food.  This time, I collected my things, and made my way straight to the car.  I felt like I was at death’s door, and I just wanted to get back to the hotel.

After a hot bath and some stretching, my legs felt better.  Walking was still painful, but mostly because of the blisters.  I’m now cautiously optimistic that my left hamstring is OK.

I also usually skip lunch after a race, in favor of having an early dinner.  Within an hour after getting back to the hotel I was starving.  Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t had a meal since Friday.

Race Statistics
Distance:  100 miles
Time:  28:29:59
Average Pace:  17:06
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  328
Lifetime 100s:  11