This race report is a novel, so you should only continue reading this if you fall in one of the following three categories: 1. You consider doing this race in the future, 2. You are a friend or family member and feel obligated to read it (which you should if you are a true friend;-), 3. You have too much time on your hands.
One Crazy Trip To Texas
I started packing and repacking my gear Wednesday night, trying to make sure I had everything I could possibly need for the race without having to check my bag at the airport. I wanted to eliminate the risk of delayed or lost baggage during my flight to Houston, Texas. Richard and I had booked seats on the same flights so we could share a rental car and hotel in Texas. Even though our flight was not scheduled to leave until around noon on Friday, I was packed and ready to go Thursday night. Luckily so, as the winter weather developments in the South would put our trip at serious risk. Of course, Richard never worried;-) By Friday morning, multiple airports in the US had shut down and my flight was cancelled and rescheduled for a midnight arrival in Houston. To make matters worse, Richard was rebooked on a different flight with a 9PM arrival. We figured the only way to have a chance at making it to the race in time would be to head to our local airport straight away.
We arrived at our local airport Friday morning at 6:30AM and were lucky that the friendly attendant at the Delta counter couldn't resist our charm. She spent the next hour with us trying the craziest detours. Austin, TX, Dallas, TX, Houston-Hobby, TX and even Shreveport, LS, nothing was off limits in our attempts to get to Huntsville, Texas before 6PM to make the bag drop-off. Finally, we settled on an itinerary that would get us to Houston by 6PM. We also got ourselves on the standby lists for every flight preceding our confirmed flight to Houston. As it turned out, Richard was right not to worry and I was overly concerned...as usual.
We ended up making the standby list on each flight, getting us to Houston by 4PM. During our long layover in Atlanta we had the chance to reconnect and have lunch with a couple of ultrarunners we had met at previous races, Margaret Curcio and Dan Burstein, who were booked on an earlier flight out of Atlanta to head to Huntsville. Thankfully, all of us ended up making it to the race on time and in one piece. The drive from Houston to Huntsville was only mildly concerning with little ice patches here and there.
We arrived at the Sam Houston University Student Center with 15 minutes to spare. I don't know if it was weird to anyone else, but having to drive directly past Huntsville State Prison just a few hundred yards before arriving at the student center was kind of strange. After scrambling to get our drop bags sorted in the backseat of our rental car we threw our drop bags for the "Dam Nation" aid station on the back of a truck, before checking in for the race and grabbing some pasta and cake. The race swag consisted of a nice half-zip running top (see picture above) that I quickly added to one of my drop bags after reading the latest weather forecast for race day.
After filling our bellies and having another quick chat with Dan, Rich and I headed to the exclusive La Quinta Inn in Huntsville, just about a mile from the race check in and nine miles from the race start. After arriving in our room, I repacked my gear for the main drop bag that I would leave at the race start. The course consisted of a 20 mile trail loop, so I knew I would hit this "Dog Wood" aid station 4 times during the race. I packed all my most important items in this drop bag: various energy snack foods and gels, a couple of Ensures, band-aids, Vaseline, 2 headlamps and a handheld flashlight, winter hat, gloves, 2 running hats, a long sleeve and short sleeve tech shirt, a half-zip running top, a winter running jacket and long pants, spare socks and spare trail shoes. The "Dam Nation" drop bag only contained a few backup items: a few energy snack foods, spare socks, a long sleeve and a short sleeve tech shirt, a half-zip running top and one pair of shorts. This strategy had one major error that will become clear later.
I had been looking forward to this day since November 6, 2010 at around 10 o'clock PM, when I dropped out of the Pinhoti 100 at mile 60 due to severe knee pain I couldn't seem to overcome. I started looking for another 100 miler right away. I needed to get that monkey off my back. Now the day had come. I had been hydrating and religiously slept at least 8 hours each night for the last two weeks. I was ready.
I received my wakeup call at 4:30AM and left the hotel at 5AM after a quick cup of coffee. We arrived at the race start around 5:35AM, enough time to drop off our drop bags at the self-supported area at the start/finish Dog Wood aid station. The temps were in the low 20s, so I decided to wear a short sleeve base layer with a long sleeve tech shirt and a fleece top, shorts, calf compression sleeves, a winter hat and gloves. Because the race started at 6AM, we also needed our headlamps for the first couple of hours. Richard and I decided to stay inside our rental car as long as possible to try to keep warm. When we finally did go to the starting area, we almost missed the start of the race. We actually thought we had 5 minutes to spare. Instead, the race got immediately underway under the cheers and applause of runners and early spectators alike. Even with all of the weather related flight cancellations and road closures, 316 runners were able to toe the starting line.
The first few miles were uneventful, I was running in the dark with no familiarity with the course. However, the main challenge of this course became clear very quickly, roots, roots and more roots. While they were only mildly bothersome early on, they managed to steadily become a regular nuisance. I have been on some technical and gnarly trails, but the roots on this course caused me to trip more than I ever had before, significantly more. As the day wore on and the legs became heavier, the number of trips over roots increased exponentially.
The first couple of loops went by fairly quickly. Richard and I settled in a comfortable pace, logging the first 20 mile loop in 4 hours. Prior to the race, Richard had decided that he would run the first 20 miles, see how he felt, and either drop out of the race and start pacing me to my first 100 mile finish once it got dark or continue on if he was feeling good. Thankfully, he was feeling great when we completed loop one, so he continued on and I had someone to chat with for the next 80 miles. After completing loop 1,we dropped off our headlamps at Dog Wood for pick up once it got dark again.
Feeling as great as Richard did after completing the first 20 miles, he started setting a sub 24 hour goal. I was rather hesitant to even consider it at this point. I figured I'd wait until mile 60 to make that call. Richard on the other hand enjoyed the math involved in calculating our pace required for the remaining loops and continued on to discuss the merits of his sub 24 hour goal. I certainly enjoyed the chatter, but I was still just concerned about my ability to finish at all. My Pinhoti DNF was still weighing heavily on my. We continued at a steady pace, completing loop 2 in 4 hours 30 minutes. We were both still feeling great, but had slowed down slightly.
Since we ran all of loop 2 in broad daylight, we finally had a chance to see the entire course. The aid stations were conveniently located at mile 0 (Dog Wood), mile 3 (Nature Center), mile 6 (DamNation), mile 12 (DamNation), mile 15 1/2 (Park Road), mile 20 (Dog Wood). Since we did not know how well these aid station would be stocked, Richard and I brought about 4 pounds of energy gels and snacks. We now know better, the aid stations had anything and everything your ultrarunner's heart could desire. And the aid station volunteers were mostly experienced ultrarunners themselves, almost reading your every need in your gazed look (more about that later). Shortly after completing loop 2, we were able to provide proof of our high spirits and positive mental state in form of a picture (see above, I am on the left, Richard is on the right). It was taken at a section we would later refer to as the bridge section due to...you guessed it, a series of bridges.
For some reason, this was not one of Richard's favorite sections as he would repeatedly state later in the race. The early ice on those bridges also presented some real problems for many racers, even ending the race for some who slipped on the ice and turned their ankles. Shortly after the picture above was taken, Richard paused and shouted out an expletive followed by "guess what we forgot when we left the Dog Wood aid station?" I had no idea, other than the fact that I really shouldn't have dropped off all of my layers of clothes, since it felt colder than I had anticipated. When Richard finally let the genie out of the bottle, I felt like a character in Dumb and Dumber.
While Richard and I did discuss the fact that we would not need our warmer clothes until mile 60, we completely failed to realize that it would be dark way before mile 60 and that we needed our headlamps. We were about to enter the Nature Center aid station and there was no way we would head back for an extra 6 miles. However, that also meant running in complete darkness for over an hour. No way could we do that, so we had to try to catch another runner at the right moment and stay with them to "share" their light. When we entered Nature Center or shortly after, we caught up to another runner, Brenda Bland from Wisconsin, who we had run with for a few miles earlier in the race. She became our guardian angel by giving up two of her backup light sources and leaving them for us at the next aid station, just in time before darkness approached. Thanks Brenda, thanks so much. I'm not sure what we would have done if it wasn't for your willingness to share. Note to self: In the future, place light sources in every drop bag.
After mile 50, I started to feel fatigued. The total mileage had also started to get to Richard. We were still going a decent pace, still on target for sub 24 hours, but it became clear that we would slow down over the remaining miles of the race. I just did not anticipate how much we would slow down. Miles 50 through 60 were significantly slower than our previous pace and we completed loop 3 in 5 1/2 hours. We were now 60 miles into the race and nothing was feeling easy anymore. As a matter of fact, Richard was pretty clear about how he was feeling at the time. It had gotten dark and as soon as the sun had gone down the temps went down with it. I was still driven by the same goal. It was all about finishing now.
We put on our warmer running clothes including a jacket and long pants, replaced our borrowed lights with our own headlamps, changed socks and shoes and grabbed some food at the aid station. I had started to get sick of the gels and decided to start eating solid aid station food for a while. The aid stations were absolutely awesome. There were cheese quesadillas, grilled cheese sandwiches, cheeseburgers, noodle soup, you name it, they had it. I was past mile 60 and deeper into my last 100 mile attempt. No way was I going to quit. Richard on the other hand did get the Pinhoti buckle, he had successfully completely the 100 mile challenge. He was no longer driven by the need to finish at any cost. So when he told me that it was unlikely that he would continue beyond 80 miles, I did the only thing I could think of at the time. I told him that if he quit, I would quit, too. After calling me some kind of name I don't recall he agreed that he would continue on. Granted, had he said that he would quit at mile 80 anyway, I am quite certain I would have continued on to get my buckle. It was no longer about racing and only about finishing at all costs now.
We had been quickly reduced to a run/walk, well, more of a speed hike than anything else. We figured if we maintained any kind of pace we would still make the cutoff and finish in time. The sleep deprivation started to get to Richard. He had not slept much at all the last couple of nights. He became drowsy quickly and I just tried to keep talking to him, even if our banter didn't make much sense anymore. I was actually feeling pretty good mentally and wasn't dealing with drowsiness, yet. We took nearly 6 1/2 hours to complete loop 4.
When we exited the mile 80 aid station, we were barely speed walking anymore. I had developed some hotspots after changing my shoes at mile 60 and these hotspots had turned into very painful deep tissue blisters. The shoes I had changed into were well broken in, so I have to assume the blisters developed as a result of a subconscious gait change as a result of some very serious left ankle and shin pain I developed after mile 50 and that had worsened as the race progressed. Note to self: Address hotspots immediately before they develop into blisters. Being reduced to no more than a walk, it also became nearly impossible to stay warm. Unfortunately, we had used up all of our dry clothes. Note to self: Bring more clothes.
As we approached 3 or 4AM, I started to get really sleepy. Thankfully, another runner shared a couple of caffeine tablets with me. Chewing one of them gave me an immediate jolt that kept me going for a while. Other than this brief period of drowsiness, I really did not have any problems aside from the blister and left shin issues mentioned earlier. Well, except for a brief hallucination episode where I "allegedly" stopped to admire a painting of a famous religious figure at the bottom of a tree stomp. I am denying this ever happened, but since Richard threatened to out me on Facebook, I figured I'd admit to as much in my race report. However, I repeat, this is his words only, no other witnesses were present, so who knows what really happened;-)
I was able to take in food for the entire time and I stayed on a very strict schedule in regards to fluid and salt intake, drinking one bottle of water/Gatorade/Heed about every hour and taking 1-2 Endurolyte pills every hour as well. We were definitely well hydrated, regularly stopping at the side of the trails for the entire duration of the race. Salt did not seem to be an issue either. With about 4 hours to go, Richard and I switched to all GUs and no other foods. We actually moved straight through the final aid station before the finish in order to complete the race. Daylight started to appear shortly after we exited the DamNation aid station for the last time and that did wake us up. However, it still did not allow me to run as my muscles and legs were completely shot. Exiting the last aid station Park Road, I finally realized that I was going to finish this thing. We had officially entered the final stretch of the race. Even though we moved quite slowly on this last loop, we did pick up quite a few runners over the course of this loop.
Once we completed the bridge section, we knew that we had only a couple more miles to go. However, these were the longest miles ever. When we finally crossed the last road, I could see the finish line. It was time to break out the ultra shuffle, no matter how badly my body hurt. I crossed the finish line of the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Endurance Run after 27 hours, 14 minutes and 41 seconds side by side with Richard, who dragged my butt to my first 100 mile finish. Thanks man, I owe you big time.
As soon as I crossed the finish line, the RD handed me my very first 100 mile belt buckle (see below).
I want to thank everyone that has allowed, enabled or encouraged me to complete this race. I would not have been able to do this with the countless volunteers at the best aid stations I have ever experienced. These guys were continuously cooking up something new, making it very hard to move on after entering the aid stations. Thanks to the race director and his excellent team for putting on an awesome event. Thanks again to Brenda for bailing us out with her backup lights and the biggest thanks goes to Richard for letting me convince him time and time again that this stuff is a good idea;-) I wouldn't have made it to the finish without you, buddy.