Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Race Report: Rocky Raccoon 100

I came into Rocky Raccoon feeling like I had unfinished business.  My first trip to Rocky, in 2017, was both an encouraging attempt and a total disaster.  I entered the race hoping to run 15:00-15:30, executed a near-perfect race plan over the opening 60 miles (9:12), and was still in position for a strong sub-16:00, 6th place finish with 20 miles to go before being reduced to a walk by a scary breathing issue that I had not experienced previously nor since then.  I came away 12th in 17:46, disappointed by the final result but convinced that I had been ready to run close to 15:30, and that I fell short of that goal only due to back luck, not anything I had done wrong in terms of preparation, strategy, or nutrition.  After a solid showing at Leadville in August I once again had my sights set on a "fast" time and a top-10 finish in one of the more competitive hundreds in the country.

My buildup, though not quite as ideal as it had been in 2017, was still solid.  I was able to clock some good miles and solid workouts, though weather conditions usually forced us into surges on the roads and trails as opposed to the unflinching environment of the track, where I had spent much of my quality time two years earlier.  I knew, objectively, that my workouts were not as good as they had been the first time around.  My long runs, too, were not as plentiful as I had hoped, though I had two or three efforts over 30 miles; I topped out at about 5 hours for a single run, and things were not quite as effortless as they've been in the past.  After my Alumni XC race over Thanksgiving weekend--which, again, went well enough, but not up to the standards I'd run the previous couple of years--I wasn't able to get in either of my two favorite winter prep races, the Viking Run (for which I was traveling overseas with my family) or the Recover From the Holidays 50K (which was rescheduled for a different weekend than usual, preventing me from being able to attend).  Missing them wasn't a huge deal, but it meant that in terms of racing, I had a single 5K to my name since Leadville--not great.  But I had done enough solid training and felt strong enough in the weeks leading up to the race that I thought 16 hours was a possibility.  For the first time in a decade, the race would not serve as the US 100mi trail championships, but the field was still solid.  Ian Sharman, the course record holder (12:44!) and a nine-time top-10 finisher at Western States, would be back for the first time in five years.  Dave Laney, the 2015 Ultrarunner of the Year, would be there, as well as two-time Badwater champ Harvey Lewis and sub-15:00 runner Catlow Shipek.  As usual, I would have to run my own race, hope for good things to happen, and see if I could work my way up the field in the late stages for a top-10 finish.

At the start
I was thrilled when my buddy Kevin confirmed he'd join me in Huntsville to crew and pace.  Kevin and I started training together in earnest last spring, when he was getting back into some serious running and I was casting about for someone to do hard midweek workouts with after Laura moved away and Dr. Mike got injured.  We absorbed him quickly into our little dirtbag scene, and he had his first ultra experience when he crewed and then paced the final twelve miles at Leadville.  Since then he's been hooked.  I paced him to an unsuccessful BQ attempt at Hartford in the fall, but we'll take another shot at that this spring before he makes the jump into the ultra world himself.  He was kind enough to start a business trip to California a couple days early and give up his weekend to get me to the finish line.  We were also joined by James McCowan, the absurdly talented Vassar XC coach who had crashed and burned in his first 100K attempt at Bandera the month before.  Not three days after struggling through a 7:53 second 50K at Bandera, James was texting me about taking a shot at redemption at Rocky, which for the first time would include a 100K.  And so our little three-man posse landed in Houston on Thursday and made our way to the course for a shakeout jog on Friday afternoon.  There had been a good deal of recent rain, but we saw relatively little mud in our recon of the first three miles of so of the trail, which was a good sign.  We had a few hiccups--I put my hand on a fire ant nest while stretching during the race briefing, picking up several painful pustules; our hotel in Huntsville had no fucking hot water for the twelve hours we were there--but in general, we made it to the start on Saturday morning relatively unscathed.

Lap 1: Searching for flow
Course map and elevation profile
I went into the race with a goal of about 3:50-3:55 for each 25-mile lap, working out the aid station splits based on about a 9:15/mile pace.  And I was able to hit those splits pretty well on lap 1.  I just wasn't able to get comfortable doing it.  Not that the effort level was too high; I was careful not to let focus on time and forget to monitor effort, and I stuck to my usual early-race plan of dialing back effort and not worrying about place or splits.  But from a mental standpoint this wasn't as easy as it has been in other races.  I felt like I was expending too much mental energy trying to convince myself not to worry about splits.  Then I'd hit an aid station in exactly the split I wanted, but instead of thinking, "Great, you're hitting your splits, just relax," I became more anxious: "Well, you're hitting your splits, don't fuck up the next one."  I almost wished I was running minutes behind schedule, so I could just forget about the splits and maybe settle into a more relaxed mental state.  Maybe it was the nature of the course--basically three separate out-and-back sections per loop, ensuring tons of feedback on both place and time--that contributed to my general unease.  Or maybe it was my GI system, which didn't seem as settled as I'd like and caused me to pull over for a pit stop at about the 12-mile mark, giving up a couple of minutes.  I also had a weird hotspot/pressure point on the top of my foot, which despite a quick stop at the Damnation Aid Station at 10 miles I couldn't seem to readjust.  Whatever it was, it wasn't until the last few miles of the lap that I finally found what felt like a natural rhythm.  When it finally clicked, just past the last aid station of the lap, it was a huge relief, and I enjoyed the final three miles into the end of the lap immensely.  This would be prove to be true for most of the rest of the day--the last few miles of each lap were among the easiest and most enjoyable for me.  I finished lap one in 3:53--right on schedule, even with my poop break--in about 18th place or so.  Kevin switched out my water bottle on my HydraQuiver Single Barrel, gave me a few extra GUs and a dry t-shirt, and sent me on my way.

Nearing the end of lap 1, finally in rhythm.
Photo: No Sleep Media
Lap 2: Highs and lows
It was way too early to start thinking about places, but again, the feedback was omnipresent, and you couldn't help but notice where you stood and what the gaps were.  And over the first half of lap two, those gaps were dropping steadily.  The top five runners were continuing to pull away, but I had pegged many of the next ten, including Harvey, and women's leader Amy Hamilton, who had blown by me at the 6.5-mile aid station of lap 1 and proceeded to put over ten minutes on me in the next 19 miles.  I was keeping the effort level steady, trying not to get caught up in racing, but I was hitting splits well and rolling up on people.  I had been dreading the out-and-back from Damnation, remembering the toll those trails had taken on me in 2017; but at this early stage, on the way out to the turnaround of lap two, I was mowing people down, and by the time we reached the minimalist Far Side Aid Station, about 39 miles in (just over 6 hours), I had moved all the way up to tenth place.  Less than a mile later I had passed Amy and was running in ninth, feeling great.

Power line section of lap 2
Photo: No Sleep Media
One of the peculiar things about ultrarunning is how quickly things can turn on you, how massive highs can be replaced by crushing lows.  (Yes, I'll link the song at the bottom.)  At 39 miles I was on top of the world.  At 43 miles I was ready to drop.  In fact, I'm convinced that if I had been at the start/finish at that point, instead of seven miles away at Damnation, I would've dropped.  Over the course of maybe a mile, I had become listless and disinterested.  I was overheating: it wasn't hot, temperatures were only in the mid-60s, but it was humid; the humidity never dropped below 90% for the day.  Even when I finished, shortly past midnight, it was 58 degrees with 98% humidity.  The air was swampy and the footing was the same.  There were between ten and fifteen spots on the course, each between 5-25 meters long or so, which were just pits of mud, requiring us to stop and attempt to pick our way around, or just slog through ankle-deep, shoe-sucking crud.  And since we hit each of those spots twice per lap, we wound up with about 100 mud crossings, not only slowing me down and disturbing my rhythm, but turning my feet into hamburger.  I walked out of Damnation as all of my recent passes streamed by me, dropping me back into the mid-teens, trying to find some motivation to keep going.  After a couple of minutes of walking, I stopped, closed my eyes, and forced myself to reset mentally.  I needed to recognize where these feelings of despair and self-pity were coming from, acknowledge them, and move on.  It took a minute or two, but I was able to refocus and started moving, slowly at first but then with renewed energy, back down the trail.  I got back to the Nature Center Aid Station at 46 miles and saw Chad Lasater, with whom I've shared many miles of trail between Bandera and RR100, passing out fluids.  We chatted briefly, renewing my spirits even a bit more, and I was able to get a solid rhythm back over the final few miles, reaching 50 miles in about 8:10, just a few minutes behind many of the folks I'd been trading places with earlier.  Energy-wise, I felt ready to charge back out, but I needed to take care of my feet.  Kevin peeled off my socks, dried my feet, and lubricated them with Chamois butter; then I pulled on some dry socks and changed my trusty but nearly ruined Salomon Sense Ultras for a clean pair of Hoka Speedgoats. (I don't know which model.  The black and red ones.)  It took nearly ten minutes, but it was a crucial change, as my feet couldn't have survived much longer in their previous state; with fresh socks and dry shoes, I felt ready to roll.

Lap 3: Suffering
100K champ James McCowan
Photo: Kevin Borden
I had seen James again on lap 2, holding a huge lead over second place and I knew not all that far behind me coming into the 50-mile mark.  Kevin had planned on running parts of each of the last two laps with me, but I knew I really wanted him for the Damnation out-and-back of each of those laps, and wanted him to focus on getting out there without expending too much energy, so I told him to hang back at the 50-mile mark, crew James for his final pass through, and then take the shortest route out to Damnation.  I got caught up over the first few miles running with two other guys who were moving a little better than I was, overdoing it a little bit, and stopped to chat with Chad again at Nature Center on the way out before heading back onto the main part of the course.  I caught up with Kevin a bit later and we ran together for about a mile before I made the left turn to run the out-and-back to the Gate station and he turned right to wait for me at Damnation.  I ran solidly to the gate and back, but struggled on the stretch to Damnation and picked up Kevin feeling pretty poorly.  He was supportive and positive as usual, and put up with me walking slowly out of the aid station and struggling badly over the first few miles before finding my rhythm.

I don't remember a ton from that point forward.  We had sections where I moved really well and sections where I struggled badly, the latter seeming to outnumber the former.  I don't recall specific issues, just not feeling great for long stretches.  But the conditions were taking their toll on lots of folks, and despite my struggles, we actually picked up several spots over that stretch.  Kevin pushed me back to the Nature Center, where I left him to make his way back to Damnation for our final lap, and I headed toward the finish.  I reached the end of lap 3 in full suffer mode, legs feeling generally OK but severely lacking in motivation.  It was now dark, and I wasn't sure where I stood in terms of place, though I was pretty sure I was near the top 10.  I sat in my folding chair, trying to force myself to get back up and keep moving, wanting nothing more than to just stop.  James was there, having secured a dominating and redemptive win, and he shepherded me through my third t-shirt change and second sock change.  He also stuffed my raincoat in my pack, as the forecast called for some light rain. and convinced me to take a Buff with me for the final lap.  I didn't want to, but finally relented and put it on as a wristband--thank god.

Lap 4: Despair and deliverance
The first ten miles of the lap were a slog.  I walked most of the uphills, picked my way around mud pits, and basically just tried to cover ground, not caring about time, place, or anything else.  I had come through 75 miles in about 13 hours--an hour slower than my goal--and had basically given up on even beating my disappointing time of two years earlier.  Now I just needed to finish.  Seeing Kevin at Damnation lifted my spirits, though, as did the realization that we were now only fifteen miles away from the end.  The mud was really messing with my head as well as my feet, but when we hit the dry patches, I started to move a little bit better.  About a mile out of Damnation I started feeling some tightness in my left calf, but I was able to adjust my stride slightly to lessen the discomfort.  I couldn't really push off my toes, making running uphill very difficult, but fortunately the uphills over the next few miles were pretty short and I simply power hiked them, running a solid 10-11 minute pace on the flats and downhills.  Kevin kept up a steady stream of positive chatter and reminders to eat, and we made pretty decent time on the out-and-back section.  Despite the dark and a bit of a drizzle, I felt incredibly hot, so Kevin filled my bottle with mostly ice and a little water at Far Side, which seemed to help a little.

About a mile out from Damnation on the return, disaster struck.  My calf suddenly grabbed and my leg nearly gave way; I stumbled and caught myself, but couldn't recover a running stride.  I limped into Damnation and sat.  Kevin found a Stick from one of the volunteers and we spent a couple of minutes trying to roll out the calf, which seemed like it helped a little.  I was still hot, so I pulled my Buff onto my neck and stuffed it with ice, which I think was the single best decision I made all day.

Hamburger feet.
Photo: James McCowan
We walked out of the aid station, seven miles from the finish.  I was limping, frustrated.  I knew I had moved into the top 10 but I also knew I wouldn't hold it if I couldn't run.  Every thirty seconds or so, I tried unsuccessfully to run a few steps.  After half a mile, it loosened up to the point where I could run for a little while on flat ground or downhills; uphills still required a gimpy walk.  Kevin remained relentlessly positive, asking if I wanted to try running a 30-seconds on, 30-second off pattern, but I told him flat out I couldn't even make myself commit to that.  At this point it really was terrain-dependent.  Still, as we made our way back towards the Nature Center I kept testing it; after a little while, I could run almost normally on flats, then I could do a fast walk on uphills, then a slow run.  A mile from the Nature Center, with five miles remaining, I suddenly felt like I was flying.  We ran an uphill 10:30 into the aid station, where James was waiting with a fresh Coke and I mortified a volunteer by slathering Chamois butter all over my extraordinarily chafed nether regions.  I refilled my makeshift ice bandanna and took off solo over the last four miles.  I had been averaging about 40 minutes over that section on the previous three laps and knew I'd need to go under 43 minutes to break 18:30--not that it mattered, but it was a nice makeshift goal.  My bottle was now straight Coke, and the ice had rejuvenated me; I charged through the first couple of miles of twisty, muddy singletrack and hit the straight, rolling hills of the Power Line trail, just two miles from the finish, feeling strong.  A brief moment of panic thinking I had done the addition wrong gave way to relief when I crested the final hill and saw the clock reading 18:28, and my severely battered feet carried me over the line with my sub-18:30 and my top-10 intact.

Reunited at the finish.
This was an interesting one for sure.  I've suffered in races before, but I don't recall ever going into the depths like I did at this one and coming back with multiple strong sections in between.  Unlike Leadville, which had been a nearly-ideal experience, this race was fraught with problems: weather, footing, stomach, energy, etc.  It really did feel like one hurdle after another.  Jodi asked me afterwards if it was fun.  No, it definitely wasn't fun.  Even the good ones aren't really all that fun, certainly not in the immediate aftermath.  But it was gratifying.  They can't all go perfectly well.  In fact, in these long events, with so many variables, most of them won't go perfectly well--or even reasonably well.  Far from it.  But there is something empowering in knowing that you can survive--maybe even succeed--even when it seems like everything that can go wrong does.  This race wasn't really a success, but it wasn't a failure either.  It was a hard-fought finish, and a hard-fought top 10, and I'll move onto the rest of 2019 taking something positive away from that.

Salomon Sense Ultra and Agile shirt
Injinji Ultra No-show socks
Patagonia Stride Pro shorts
Orange Mud Single Barrel Hydraquiver
GU Roctane and gels
Orange Mud trucker cap 
Petzl Reactik + headlamp
And an off-brand Buff I got at Cayuga Trails a few years ago