Thursday, February 16, 2017

Race Report: Rocky Raccoon 100

It's been almost two weeks since Rocky Raccoon, my first real 100 miler (not counting last year's 24-hour at North Coast, though maybe I should).  I've been struggling with various, conflicting emotions since I crossed the finish line in Texas.  Relief at being finished.  Disappointment at not having achieved most of my goals.  Frustration that, despite excellent preparation and race execution, I was left with a sub-par result, largely due to circumstances outside my control.  Pride at having actually accomplished the task of running 100 miles, still in a relatively respectable time.  Concern and fear over what I might be doing to my body.  Uncertainty as to where I go from here.

I came into Rocky about as prepared as I could've hoped.  I'd had four months of basically uninterrupted training since North Coast, averaging over 100 mi/week for the previous 13 weeks (including recovery weeks!) with a nice mix of track work, hills, tempo, and marathon-pace efforts.  Greg had almost fixed my chronic Achilles tendinosis.  Scott had basically tortured my muscles into balance.  My weight was perfect, right in the 137-lb. range.  Four weeks earlier, I had run a solo 50K in 3:39, feeling completely relaxed; my last 10 miles were easily the fastest of the run.  I had no excuses.  I flew to Houston on the Thursday before the Super Bowl with my great friends Phil and Laura (and Francis Ford Coppola, who was on our plane); Phil would be running his second 100 (after an epic battle with the Grindstone course last year) and Laura would be crewing me and pacing my last 25 miles.
All smiles at the start, with Phil.
photo: Laura Kline
The opening pace was about as fast as I expected.  My pre-race goal was 15 hours (I didn't know exactly how realistic that was, but I knew I could run 16 hours, and I wanted to be mentally prepared to try to run faster than that), and based on previous years I figured that a 15-16 hour performance would have me comfortably in the top 5.  I was anticipating a quick start, though, so I lined up several rows back and let folks go crazy in the early stages.  I stopped to pee around four miles in and was very pleased to find that Phil had been running right behind me (why he hadn't said anything for the first half hour is beyond me).  He was planning on running in the 17-18 hour range, so this pace was a bit faster than he needed to be, but he was happy to run comfortably with me and plan on slowing down later, so we settled in to 9:00 pace and wiled away the miles chatting and making sure not to go too fast.
With Phil at mile 23, cruising along.
photo: Laura Kline
We finished the first 20-mile circuit in 2:58, right on pace (if not place; we were easily outside the top-20, already over 30 minutes behind the leaders; but I knew there weren't about to be twenty sub-15:00 100s out there) and resolved to slow down just a tad over the next lap, so as not to overdo it.  Phil was the pacemaker for most of lap 2, and did a masterful job in guiding us through a 3:02 lap for a 6-flat split at 40 miles.  The course was fun--a mix of singletrack and doubletrack, with a few more rolling hills than I had anticipated, but mostly excellent footing and eminently runnable.  The aid stations were well-stocked and staffed with hilarious, enthusiastic volunteers.  All in all we were having a blast.  I stopped briefly at 40 miles to eat a little peanut butter and chat with Laura for a few seconds while Phil ran through the aid station and opened up a little gap on me, but I had been moving just a touch better over the last several miles and was not concerned about catching back up; by 42 miles were running together again.  I was a few seconds in front when we came to an intersection that had clearly had the markings tampered with; it took us a minute or two to sort out where the signs had been switched around and get back on the right path.  (Where does this compulsion come from, to fuck around with course markings?  How is this fun for whoever is doing this?  I could almost understand it if you were sitting there and laughing at stupid runners getting confused and running in different directions, but why are you switching markings and then just walking away?  What pleasure does that bring you?)

End of lap 2, 40 miles in.
photo: Laura Kline
I kept the pace steady throughout lap 3; I still felt very good, but did not want to go overboard yet, and focused on trying to run the same splits between aid stations as I had on the first two laps.  Phil fell back and I was on my own; I could track my progress to some of the leaders, though it became obvious that a lot of people had dropped out already and I didn't have a clear sense of where I stood.  My splits were not far off, especially accounting for the few minutes we'd lost at the tampered intersection.  The seven-mile Damnation loop between the second and third AS on each lap did become a bit of a slog.  This was the longest stretch between aid stations, and also the longest segment that didn't involve an out-and-back section, so it was rather isolating; it was a good hour of basically solo running, with few landmarks, and by the third time through it was starting to feel like a chore.  But I maintained through 50 miles in 7:34 and finished up lap 3 in 9:12, now in sixth place.  Fifth was a good 20-30 minutes ahead and looking strong; seventh was about 8-10 minutes back (Phil was about 10-15 back, in around 10th).  I knew by know that I wasn't going to break 15:00--negative splits are almost impossible in a race this long--but I told Laura that I'd be at the 75-mile mark in 11:45-12:00, and that 16 hours was easily doable.

I pressed on through lap 4.  After running through every aid station for the first 30 miles or so, I had developed a nice AS rhythm: two cups of Coke, half a banana, a few bites of PBJ, grilled cheese, or a quesadilla, and some pickles.  A minute or so, in and out.  I'd been running the whole way with my Orange Mud Hydraquiver Single Barrel, so I had 26-ounces of fluid with me, which I was generally drinking twice per lap starting with lap 2--one time with GU Brew, then refilling with water for the second half of each lap.  My fueling and energy systems felt pretty good.  I'd taken a few salt tablets, but not many.  I had peed probably four times in the first 70 miles or so; it was a little concentrated, but certainly not brown or anything concerning.  The Damnation loop on lap 4 was interminable; even though it was only about 4-5 minutes slower than I'd been running on the previous laps, it felt like it would never end.  Still, I maintained a nice pace through mile 72, on target to meet Laura at 75.5 in about 11:50.

In a race this long, things are going to go wrong at some point; how you deal with them is what separates a good race from a bad one.  At 73 miles, things that didn't need to go wrong started to go wrong.  I started feeling pretty tired and was struggling a little bit, when I started bleeding from my right nostril.  This isn't unheard of for me, especially when conditions are as dry as they were in Texas, but it certainly was an issue I didn't want to deal with at that point.  I slowed down a little and managed as best I could, and came in to the aid station to pick up Laura right around 11:53 or so.  (For comparison, my 12-hour split at North Coast was about 76 miles, so I was right there, if not a couple of minutes faster.)  Laura was ready to rock (and freezing cold, having been waiting for about 30 minutes as sunset approached) but I had to sit and manage my issues.  A volunteer pulled up a folding chair and brought me some tissues to pack my nose; Laura brought some Ramen and refilled my bottle.

"What else do you need?" asked the volunteer.  "I've got some whoppies.  You want some whoppies?"

Did I want whoppies?  I didn't know.

"I'm sorry, what?"

"Whoppies?  You need some whoppies?"

Shit, I didn't know what he was talking about.  I racked my brain, trying to think of what I was forgetting.  I'd been reminding myself for the past few miles that I wanted to tell Laura to give me a Zofran tablet (for nausea) when we got to mile 80...more as a precaution than anything else, though my stomach had felt mildly queasy...I knew I wanted to drop my vest pack and just use a handheld on the last lap...I couldn't remember what I had decided about whoppies.  Did I want whoppies?  Would they bother my stomach?  Wait, what the fuck was a whoppy?  Why couldn't I remember what a whoppy was?  Laura was back with my bottle, but she didn't seem to know about whoppies either.

"I'm sorry...what are you saying?"


"What...oh. Wipies."

Texas accents, man.

Once I had cleaned the blood off my hands and face with some wet wipes (aka wipies/whoppies), we started off at an easy jog.  I led most of the way back to the start/finish, not running the 9-10 minute pace I had been doing earlier, but holding a steady 11:00 pace for the next four miles or so, coming through 80 miles in 12:46.  I needed to run only 10:30 pace to break 16 hours.  Fifth place was over thirty minutes in front, but seventh place was about twenty minutes behind.  Sixth was mine, barring disaster.  I dropped my vest and grabbed my handheld, took the Zofran and, at Laura's suggestion, a caffeine tablet, as my energy levels were starting to sag a bit, and we started off, headlamps blazing, Laura in the lead, running ten-minute miles.

I struggled to keep up as we started off, though my legs felt alright, and tried to keep suffering through what seemed to be a bad patch.  But after a mile or so, I could tell it wasn't simply a bad patch.  My breathing didn't feel right.  I was fatigued, to be sure, but beyond that, I was struggling to keep my breathing under control.  I was hyperventilating on every uphill.  After about two miles, I told Laura I needed to slow down to try to catch my breath.  I wasn't sure what the problem was.  Maybe the caffeine, I thought; though I'm pretty habituated to caffeine, and had been drinking Coke and taking caffeinated gels for the past several hours, maybe the tablet had been too much, and it was causing my heart to race.  We stopped at AS 1 (83 miles) and I sat again to check my pulse.  120 beats/minute.  Nothing out of the ordinary; certainly nothing to cause unusual shortness of breath.  I rested a few minutes, drank some hot broth, and we walked on.

Over the next few miles, I tried to run on the flat and downhill sections whenever I could.  Uphills left me gasping for air and were not runnable.  We decided we'd have to try to just wait out whatever was happening.  I had no chest pain and was still urinating.  My legs actually felt fine; on the sections were I could run, I was holding sub-10:00 pace with any real soreness or achiness.  And maybe the breathing was getting a little better.  I'd just walk the uphills until it went away.

It was on the final Damnation loop where everything went to shit.  I started feeling a rattling in my chest when I was running; I tried to cough up phlegm but nothing would come up.  At first, it was only on uphills; by about 88 miles I could hear a rattling sound even on flat segments.  By now I was starting to freak out a little bit.  I doubted it was my kidneys, as I had peed only a few miles earlier.  Was my heart OK?  All the reading I'd been doing for work and school about ultrarunning and heart disease started playing with my mind.

"Laura, I think my lungs are filling up with fluid.  I think I just have to walk."

So, we walked.  Every so often I'd try running for a bit, but the rattling came back after fifteen seconds or so and I was too freaked out to keep going.  Walking seemed OK, and my legs felt fine, and I was still going to be able to finish, so we just walked.  I felt bad for Laura, who had given up an entire weekend and flown all this way and supported me all day to basically be reduced to walking for 18 of the 25 miles she was pacing, but I couldn't do anything about it.  I was still in sixth, somehow, through ninety miles, but by about 91 folks started straggling by.  Phil and his pacer Mike came past at about 93; he looked so strong I wanted to cry, but I put on a brave face and we just trudged through.  I was able to run for about fifteen of the final 25 minutes or so, and finished the last lap with Laura in 5:01, for a 17:48, 12th-place finish.

I went straight to the medical tent, although I felt generally OK, and had one of the docs listen to my lungs, which he pronounced as clear; my heart rate was about 140 when I first sat down, but came down to 90 within the first couple of minutes.  I was still having a hard time taking a full, deep breath without coughing, which would persist for the next couple of days, but otherwise things seemed to be fine.  I'm still not sure what the issue was/is.  My best supposition is that the dry, dusty air caused some bronchospasm and a bit of an asthma-like reaction; several folks, including Phil, commented on how dusty it had been, and I had my nosebleed as evidence.  But I'm scheduled for a chest X-ray and an echocardiogram tomorrow, so we'll make sure everything is ok.  (I'll try to post a bit on the echo, and some various ultrarunning/heart-related issues, next week.)

My favorite existential sign.
This is the next morning.  No, I don't look good.
So where do I go from here?  I won't make any long-term decisions until after the echo results are in. If everything is OK, I assume I'll get back to training in another week or so, and I'll put together a race schedule for the summer/fall in the coming weeks.  I'm glad to have finished, and to have my buckle, and my WS qualifier, and yes, a 17:48 is not anything to sneeze at.  But everything pointed to a sub-16, and my legs were certainly up for it, and my fueling and everything else seemed to be on point.  I'm equal parts frustrated and concerned, combined with the usual apathy/ennui after a major race is over.  It's not a great headspace to be in right now.

I learned that I can prepare for and execute a 100-mile race plan.  I confirmed, after Bandera and North Coast, that I can compete among the second tier of US ultrarunners at long national championship races--I'm not going to win, but after the true elites beat the shit out of each other, I'm certainly in the next wave of guys that are picking up the pieces.  And I learned that bad patches are just bad patches, and that I should recognize them for what they are, and not panic and try to force myself out of them by taking caffeine pills or whatnot; they just need to be endured until they end.  What all this means for me going forward, though, is still a bit of a mystery.

Patagonia Strider shorts and top, courtesy of Mountain Peak Fitness/Red Newt Racing
inov-8 Race Ultra 290s (discontinued, unfortunately, but really looking forward to the new Roclites)
Orange Med Single Barrel HydraQuiver, Handheld, and trucker cap
GU Roctane gels and GU Brew