So, this past weekend, I finally ran the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Endurance Run, something that I'd been talking about and training for over the past few months. Of all the ultramarathons I've run, I had more training time specifically devoted to Rocky Raccoon than any other previous race, so this was a pretty important race for me. When I ran the first of my 2 marathons of the fall back in October, I was in pretty bad shape and I just hadn't been training properly. As a result, I ran extremely poorly and totally faded in the 2nd half of the race. I wanted to have a huge race on the radar neaer the end of winter/beginning of spring so that I'd have to get back into top form over the fall/winter, so I chose Rocky Raccoon after hearing that it was one of the "easier" 100 mile runs in the country. A 100 mile run is never easy obviously, but at least compared to other more mountainous runs, Rocky is definitely less difficult, so it was a good pick.
A lot of my training for Rocky came in really cold conditions either in Baltimore or in Minnesota. When I was home in Minnesota on break, we posted wind chills in the negative 40s a couple times and even the straigh temperature was negative more often than not, so I had to do a good chunk of my training on treadmills to avoid freezing to death out in the cold. My long runs consequently suffered a bit since even a 20 mile run on a treadmill is enough to make me go out of my mind. I did still get some marathon-length runs in on warmer (single digit temp) days, and maintained my fitness reasonably well. While in Baltimore, I posted a good amount of mileage and while training for this run, I posted days with more than a marathon's worth of running at least 10-15 times, sometimes running 2 marathon length runs in one week. My longest training run building for this specific race was a 50+ mile race in Boston in November.
On to the actual race... After a huge 3 week taper, during which I only ran one 20+ mile run, I flew down to Houston. I flew out on the same flight as fellow runner Dave Ploskonka and we met another runner, Matt Condron, and his wife, in Houston. Unfortunately, we landed at different Houston airports without realizing it, so Dave and I had to wait around at Houston Hobby Airport for awhile before we finally realized that we were at Hobby and they were at Bush. After finally straightening things out and driving up to Huntsville State Park, where the race was to take place, we had a pre-race briefing and then went to sleep pretty early. My bed of choice was the floor in the trunk of the rental car, which wasn't big enough, so I just left the door open and stuck my feet out the back. This might seem like a bad place to sleep before running 100 miles, but compared to some previous sleeping arrangements I've endured for the sake of running, such as a hard cement floor without a pillow or soaking wet grass with no sleeping bag, this definitely was not all that bad.
I woke up at 5 AM the day of the race after getting 8 to 8 1/2 hours of sleep. I changed into my running clothes and got my water bottles, headlamp, and electrolyte and food supplies ready to go. The race started at 6, so I got to the line ready to go literally as the gun was going off. Unfortunately, I started behind some pretty slow runners and the beginning of the trail was quite narrow, so it took me awhile to get to the part of the pack that I should've been in.
The race consisted of 5 20 mile loops and I ran the first loop pretty fast, probably much faster than I should've, coming through in 3:10 or 3:15. The first loop was pretty uneventful other than a ton of people around me tripping over the roots in the dark. I made sure to learn from everyone else's mistakes and I watched the ground the whole time through the bad parts, which kept me from falling. None of the hills were particularly bad, but there were a few sections that definitely rolled up and down quite a bit more than I expected for a "very flat" course as I had been told. No matter what though, the first loop felt very comfortable.
I started on the 2nd loop at about 3:20 after eating for 5 or 10 minutes. After 5 or 10 miles into the 2nd loop, I started to realize that it was getting uncomfortably hot. By 11 or 12 AM, the temperature spiked to 80 and, with the high humidity, it got pretty uncomfortable. I realized that while I had trained a pretty healthy amount of mileage, I didn't have any heat training within months, so the high temperatures were a bit of a shock for me. While 80 degrees would be nothing during the summer, I was not ready for it in the middle of winter. I decided to just play it safe and I intentionally kept the lap pretty slow so I wouldn't die out later. Giving myself ample breaks to drink LOTS of fluids at every aid station, I came across the end of the second loop in 7:50 or so, markedly slowing from my fast first lap. I didn't feel particularly good at the end of the 2nd lap and I felt that things were not going particularly well at that point. The heat was starting to wear on me much earlier than I wanted and there wasn't a lot I could do about it. I was really craving chocolate milk and fortunately someone was able to give me a Nesquik that they had in a cooler, so that really hit the spot and gave me the boost I needed.
Starting on the 3rd loop after a long-ish break, I immediately felt better after having the chocolate milk. I didn't really push it in the first half of the lap since it was still pretty hot, but the sun was at enough of an angle by the 2nd half of the loop that I was able to speed up quite a bit. I sometimes like to surge for a few miles just to keep my legs from getting too used to going slow, so I pushed pretty hard from miles 50 to 55 before deciding that I should probably slow down given that I still had 45 miles to run. I played it safe for the last 5 miles of the loop and came across the 60 mile point in somewhere around 12:30. I actually felt better at 60 than I had at 40, which was almost certainly due to the fact that the temperatures had gone down.
The 4th loop was definitely an interesting test of endurance. Since the race was running in February, the sun obviously went down a bit earlier than it would in Summer. Starting into the 4th loop, the sun was going down. Typically, when the sun is going down, it means that you're near the end of the race, but I still had 40 miles to go in this one. I knew mentally that I still had a lot of running left, but I had this innate feeling that I was almost done, which definitely could've become quite dangerous if not kept in check. I ran the first bit of the loop fairly conservatively once again, but I absolutely surged from 66 to 72, hitting 68 to 72 in 27 minutes. Obviously, this was a pretty dangerously stupid idea, but I just felt like having some fun for a bit and I was definitely at a higher point of the run, so it didn't seem to be that bad of an idea. After the surge, I kept the rest of the lap relatively slow.
Starting into the 5th lap, I began to have some issues. I was getting really tired and starting to stumble all over the place. I wasn't really sure why, but I began to trip over a lot of the roots and it was really messing with my stride. After a few miles, I realized that my handheld flashlight was really starting to die out and, because I have a complete POS Petzl headlamp, my field of vision was just terrible. By mile 87, just a mile after the 6-mile aid station and 5 miles short of the 12 mile aid station, my handheld completely died out and I couldn't see worth crap. I tried running and by the time I hit my face on a tree branch, I realized that I needed to walk until I could get a new battery. Finally, when I was within 1/2 mile of the next aid station, I finally came across someone with a spare AA battery, so I got my handheld working again. Unfortunately though, my legs had cramped so much by that point that running was extraordinarily painful.
The last 8 miles after that point were an absolute hell. I wanted to just walk it in for the rest of the race and I had an excuse to do so since I had cramped so badly, but I knew that I needed to keep my pace at a slow jog at the very least if I wanted to PR and break my previous time of 23:09. I stopped for about 10 seconds just to fill my water bottle at each of the last 2 stations (12 and 16 miles into the loop) and took off as fast as possible to make sure that I'd make it under 23 hours. Even by mile 97 and 98, I remember thinking that I was still unsure if I was going to finish since my quads were burning so badly and every step was pure torture, but I somehow just kept going until I made it in with 22:57 on the clock. I wasn't sure that I would finish with a PR until I was literally close enough to the finish line that I could have tripped and fallen over it.
Once I made it to the finish, I could barely even stand up and I immediately sunk into a chair and just sat there for awhile. I dozed off for about 10 minutes, but that was all the sleep I got for the night since it was already almost 5 AM when I finished. I was expecting a ridiculously long recovery since I had to push myself so incredibly hard over the last bit of the race, but somehow I managed to be back out running again the next day and somehow felt good enough for a 39 mile trainer run from Baltimore to DC within 6 days of finishing, so I guess my body somehow recovers remarkably fast. I guess I have to thank the incredible amount of protein shakes and glutamine-fortified Recoverite by Hammer Nutrition that I had over the few days after the run.
In hindsight, I learned several valuable lessons from this race:
1. No matter how many miles you have in the bank from training, it is incredibly important to train for the weather conditions you will experience during the race. I was not ready for the heat and it definitely showed.
2. I need to fuel better and take more electrolytes. I really like the analogy of the human body during an endurance race to a car. The food is the fuel and the electrolytes are like the motor oil. If you don't have proper amounts of either, your performance will suffer. Whether you're running on fumes or you don't have enough oil, your car is going to give you issues, and the body works similarly. I didn't take enough electrolytes during the heat of the day and the few times that I had cramps, they were REALLY bad. My legs were twitching completely uncontrollably near the end of the race and simple electrolyte supplementation could've helped out with that quite a bit. I'm not really sure how I fell behind on the electrolytes, I guess I just underestimated how much I needed since I usually get away with almost nothing in most races of 50 miles or shorter. Also, with the food, that is easily correctable. When you're in a lot of pain, any sort of food sounds horrible, but it's still as important as ever to eat properly in those situations. By the end of the race, I was eating almost nothing and I almost thought I was going to fall over and not be able to get back up at a few particularly bad points. Fortunately, I didn't end up having any issues, but I need to be more careful in the future.
3. While my training mileage was pretty good, I need a higher emphasis on longer runs, rather than day in and day out training. When training for my first 100 miler 18 months ago, I had 3 other ultras leading up to it in the 2 months prior to the race. I didn't have a lot of training runs of more than a marathon, but the other races served as excellent trainers, especially considering that I had 2 60+ mile runs in there. This time, I had just as much mileage and ran my training at a higher intensity for the most part, but I only had 1 ultra and 1 trail marathon in the 3 months prior to the race. I had more runs of longer than a standard marathon, but my longest run that was specifically part of the buildup for this race was a single 50 mile race and that is definitely not enough. For my future 100s, I'm going to have to be a bit more balls-to-the-walls about my training tactics and throw in some good 50, 60, or 70 mile trainers. This will mean running for an entire day on a Saturday or something to train up, but that's what I need to do, so that's what I'm going to do. I have a huge 65-ish miler that I have planned for mid-March and I'm going to hit a couple really big 50+ers in late April through mid May, so I think that for my next 100 miler in June, the distance will feel slightly less out of the norm.
4. Always carry an extra battery and don't rely on a lowest-tier Petzl headlamp. I still can't believe I paid $30 for that garbage Petzl headlamp that I have. I'm going to be replacing it in time for my next racing excursion and I will make sure that I carry a battery for replacement in a handheld if necessary. This is definitely an easy and obvious way to make racing less painful next time.
Overall, I'm not too unhappy with my performance, though I feel that changing a few things could've led me to a considerably faster time. I still PRd slightly and I learned some lessons that will help me to race better in my 3rd 100 miler this coming June. I'll post a couple pictures shortly...