10 Nov 09 by James Elson

The Sahara Race 2009

The Sahara Race kicked off during the last week of October and I flew out the night before our transfer into the desert as Id already used all of my holiday allowance from work for the entire year. This was the last desert in the series for us all and I had been injured in the run up with achilles tendonitis and shin splints causing me to drop out of a few races over the summer, not the greatest preperation. In the end the only objective really was to finish, but then again thats pretty much the only real objective anyway!

I landed in Cairo late, around 11pm and Bucket had arranged for a cab to pick me up. On the way from the airport to the hotel, the cab crashed into the back of a truck on a roundabout and ripped the bonnet off of the front of the car. After the driver had tried to fight the truck driver unsuccesfully we limped to the hotel which was an hour from the airport anyway and I got searched by the guards entering into the hotel lobby, clearly security was a major issue here. Then when I got to the room where Bucket was staying, I found out there was an absolutely MASSIVE wedding reception going on in the huge pool/ bar area outside of our terrace doors. Pink strobe lights were coming into the room and the bass was so loud it made everything shake. I must have got about 3 hours sleep before Hully came in the morning and woke us up. We went to breakfast and then went through check in as usual where they go through your kit and make sure we'd all signed your life away officially one last time. Everything felt a bit rushed as I hadn’t been in town more than about 5 minutes but it was GREAT to be back with the boys with new addition to the group Mickey, a Scot living in Sydney.


Eberhard Frixe whom Id met in Chamonix in August did my kit check, I had everything I needed & my pack weighed in around 7.5 kilos as planned. Then we were all shepherded onto buses for the 7 hour transfer into the desert. We were all in pretty good spirits but that quickly faded when we realised how epic the bus ride was going to be. We had the added issue of passing through a number of security checkpoints. We also had an armed guard on the bus with us at all times. Half way into the journey one of the buses broke down and Mary was forced to call in a replacement from Cairo, which would take a few hours to reach us. We ended up all waiting together in a roadside service station in the middle of the desert where we started to meet and chat to some of the other competitors. These included Annabelle Bond who had recently become the first woman to climb the 7 highest peaks on the 7 continents inside of a calendar year. She was racing with 2 friends, one of whom had just Denali to go before achieving the 7 for herself. Clearly we were in distinguished company. We sat back on the bus as it went to refuel and the driver hopped out and popped in the petrol nozzle. When we looked out we realised that everyone in the petrol pump area including the driver was smoking. We promptly all got back off the bus and walked a good distance away from the area. Hully also took the time to give a couple of young american guys a some pointers on blisters: 'you'll get them son don't you worry' ....


We carried on driving late into the night and arrived at the campsite some time after midnight after a few minutes of snatched sleep. We were led off of the road into thick, soft and now cold sand and through some sets of glow sticks into the ring of tents. We found our one and all bed down for the night. Not a good start regards getting some proper rest before Day 1.


In the morning we woke and went through the usual desert routine, repacking, preparing drink mixes and stashing food and enduralyte salt replacement tablets in accessible places in around the front packs for the Days Stage. Alain Wehbi a Lebanese guy sharing our tent told us that he would definitely be first back so would get things ready for us. Clearly he wasn't short on confidence. Mary then gathered us together around the fire in the centre of camp and introduced the staff and the race. She also gave the five of us, Hully, Willo, Frank, Bucket and myself a mention as the only 5 in the field looking to complete the series here. The guy in charge of course marking then went over the days terrain and distances and we lined up at the start line. Right before the air horn went off I met Team CHASE for the first time, Mark, Paul and Luke whom Id been in contact with during the preceding few weeks. We wished each other luck. I had little idea at this stage how intertwined our races were going to become.


The first day was around 40km & the first 10km went out in a straight line over majority flat and reasonably well packed terrain. The one competitor I knew something about was Mehmet Danis, a previous winner of the Gobi March. Mehmet went off extremely quickly at the beginning and didn’t look back. The pace was relentless but I seemed to find it ok to sit in the top 10 or so runners. A German guy wearing all black was also racing and seemed to be sponsored by Red Bull so clearly he was no slouch. He had a camera crew with him filming also and they spent the first half of today’s stage driving up and down the field taking video footage of us but also blowing massive amounts of dust into us from debris kicked up by the wheels which certainly wasn’t making breathing any easier. At the 5km marker I looked at my watch and realised Mehmet had gone through in about 20 minutes so it was clear that we were off at a ridiculous pace. Already the field looked pretty strung out behind us. Into CP1, I got some water and then moved on. The heat even by this relatively early hour was absolutely oppressive. I had started without a hat on as Id forgotten about it and realised at CP1 that I needed to get it out or I was going to go down in the next section as I was already dizzy after 45 minutes of running. I lost 2 places just getting it out of the back of my bag. The next 10km I ran all of but at a much more reasonable pace, getting passed by George Chmiel a young American runner who yelled out ‘how awesome is this, its much easier than I thought’ as he passed to my right. There was a short sand dune climb into CP2 which I walked but had still made good time and I guessed I was around the top 8 or so still. The next section became difficult. I looked behind and couldn’t see anyone approaching and Id also lost sight of the next nearest runner ahead so I was struggling to pick out the pink markers. This was extremely unusual and actually the first time it had happened to me in a desert event.

In the end I stood still on top of a hill for a minute or so just trying to pick out the course. By that point a Canadian runner Ash Mokhtahri had joined me from behind and we followed a long sweeping curve around into CP3 at 30km. I left the CP just before Ash and head down the hill into a section of enormous solid rock slabs. The heat by now around midday was intense, in fact each day got to between 45 and 49 degrees centigrade. I was really struggling to keep my body temperature down with the fully laden pack. When Ash and I hit the slabs we lost all site of the course markers again and because we were surrounded by rock it was obvious that there was nowhere to place a pink flag. In the circumstances we drew a line from the last two markers and head out across the expanse in the same general direction. Twenty minutes later we hit a sand runway, delineated by rocks and thought we could see a pink marker way off to the left. We head down the sand road to it and promptly discovered it was a coke can. Now it was around 1000 metres back to the previous flag, we had little idea of what direction it was in and to press on forwards would have meant potential major trouble. After around 5 minutes of running around and searching the distance for any sign of life, a car pulled up and drove off past us into the distance. We could see it was a racing the planet vehicle so followed it but they too were lost and had been following Ash and myself. We then just stood still in our tracks whilst they drove back off into the distance behind us searching for the correct path. Eventually they stopped and stood on the roof waving to us. It was a good 5 minute run back to where they were and by this stage Ash and I were annoyed and frustrated. Still at least we weren’t in the middle of nowhere waiting to be eaten by camels. The last 3km were over rolling thick sand dunes, which forced us to walk uphill and around a rock formation into the camp. It was obvious here that others had got lost too. George the young American turned into the finishing straight just ahead of us and from a totally different direction, before crossing the line and berating the RTP staff and volunteers for the poor course marking.


I felt pretty whacked as I sat there Id finished around 8th and only a few minutes behind those just ahead of me but I realised I didn’t really care. I went back to the tent and laid down with my feet up. Tonight we were camping in the white desert with our tents pitched in between incredible limestone structures, it was truly spectacular and a great place to finish the day.


About 20 minutes after, Mickey Campbell came in having had a really great first stage. The boys from Team Trifecta followed only shortly after that before Ken, another US competitor joined us. Ken fit into the tent atmosphere beatutifully he was a great addition to the clan for the week, by the end he was almost as unsociable as we were and was fully amusing the entire tent with his tales. Only later on did Alain make it back. He had had knee trouble in the first 10km and had been forced to drop out at CP2. He spent the rest of the week hanging out with the top 5 runners after each stage and didn’t run again. Bucket came back late in the afternoon after a very long day out in the heat. He seemed very tired and instantly mentioned that he hadn’t been sure he was going to actually make it through the day. It was a time for just sharing the pain between us and acknowledging how hard and how hot it had been. The boys from Team Trifecta were in the lead in the teams but by only a few minutes so they had a lot on their mind also. Erik made it into camp later having dropped out at CP3 again with injury. When it began to rain just as the sun dropped below the horizon we had to smile to ourselves that you just never know quite what the desert will throw at you.


When we woke up in the morning for Day 2 I felt dread rather than excitement. This was the difference in my mindset between a strong build up to Atacama and an erratic and tiring build up to the Sahara. We kicked off and head over some rough packed ground before heading across a sandy expanse to CP1 at 10km. I had no intention of pushing the pace today, it would cause me to potentially blow up and have a shocker and I couldn’t face a huge long walk, Id rather just jog slowly and get on with it. Quite quickly it became obvious that plenty of others felt good and wanted to take advantage of the cooler early conditions where temperatures were about 10 degrees lower than they would be in a n hours time. I got to CP1 in about 12th just before the real heat of the day. It was like running into a brick wall. It was hotter than the previous day and we were totally exposed to the heat. I found myself running with people I hadn’t seen before as Id fallen down the pecking order with my slower pace but I kept running the flats and downs and walking the ups into CP2. Just before CP2 I felt like I was going backwards, people kept overtaking me and I was slipping further and further down the order, all the time feeling worse and worse due to lack of energy and massive overheating issues. I wasn’t concentrating on eating enough and hence my reserves were being eaten in to, way to early in the day.

As I moved through CP2 it became clear that actually everyone was feeling the same way and as I carried straight on I left behind a tent full of people just trying to cool down out of the heat. I pressed on quickly now power walking with the poles out. I went through some very low points all as a result of the heat and felt like I was really struggling to keep control of my body temperature and keep moving forward at the same time. I’ve no doubt that if I’d run those sections I would have ended up collapsing and power walking was actually enough for me to pull a long way clear of anyone behind me. As I exited the rough dunes section we hit a long downhill open stretch of sand where we could see CP3 in the distance. From there it was a hard left turn straight up the hill and into some incredible sand dunes before the drop down in to camp. I reached CP3 where Eberhard was working with his usual enthusiasm and he filled up my two bottles and sent me straight on. As I plugged up the hill to the dunes a Racing the Planet car came past on its way to the evenings campsite and the whooping and hollering from within helped keep my motivation up. Once into the dunes it was very hard going, two steps forward for one back as the sand slipped from under my feet. I made it over and down the other side a half an hour later, running up the hill and into camp. I had turned a disastrous first half of the day into a strong finish which I was massively pleased about.


Day 3 began with a procession up and over a small set of dunes and onto a long downhill plain, before carrying us up a long and slow ascent into CP1. For the whole of this first 10km you could see everyone stretched out ahead and behind and it was quite a sight. Again I found myself pushing the pace but running only about 15th - 20th as people ran so relatively hard early on. As I made it through CP1 again the field began to spread out and I lost sight of most people behind as I ran as hard as I could down the long downhill section into CP2. This truly was fast going and my hope was that by turning this section from 1hr 20 minute walk/ run on the flat into a 50 minute downhill jog, I could effectively finish half the day with almost no effort and go on to an early finish, maximising recovery time. Actually this section held more up its sleeve than that. Just shortly after I passed Erica Terblanche the leading lady who was taking a photo of a spider, I noticed that the runner ahead had collapsed in front of me. I caught up to him within a minute and it turned out to be Webbo from Team Chase. Their team had disbanded the previous day as each of them felt more comfortable running at their own pace. Webbo had blown up badly the day before and had overcooked it again, he was clearly very dehydrated. A medic van was already on its way back so I stayed with him until they arrived and then pressed on the 500m or so in to CP2. I urged Webbo not to accept an IV or a lift unless he really really needed it as I was concerned his race would be over if he did either, when some time recovering in the shade of the vehicle would hopefully get him good enough to continue.
 In the end Webbo made it through that section and finished the day. CP2 to CP3 was absolutely intense. I passed a young English guy, Chris, going through CP2 again, now becoming a common occurrence as I would take the water and walk straight through whilst those ahead of me at that point would sit in the shade and drink for some time. CP3 was at an oasis and we could see an outcrop of very out of place palm trees at the top of a hill for about an hour before we got anywhere near it. Prior to that we face a long trudge up an enormous heap of sand. When I reached CP3 I was caught by Paul Rowlinson also of the disbanded Team CHASE and Eberhard urged us both on at the same time. I couldn’t face going up into the oasis, the energy to walk an extra 100 metres seemed a waste.


CP3 to the finish was just a long hot walk. I had a good chat with Paul about the race and back home and we stayed together for around 5km before we split up very slowly and I pushed on ahead to the finish passing Mehmet the pre-race favourite in the final 3km who was struggling massively with his stomach and therefore his hydration. It was a long finishing straight over which you could see the camp for around 40 tortuous minutes, but once there obviously a great relief to be in.


After Team Trifecta arrived shortly after, with Mickey in tow once again, I made up my mind that I was going to stick with the boys all day the following Day 4. I had no interest in racing now and wanted to enjoy it as much as possible without slowing down too much. Their pace was only ever slightly off of mine each day anyway and therefore it made sense to stick with them and try and help each other through. They were also now clear favourites in the team race after the disbanding of the CHASE boys who would have pushed them the hardest, but they were not yet fully clear of a Canadian Team so needed to keep the pace going. That day was a whole new experience for me. Frank led the boys off in a run 8 minutes, walk 2 minutes strategy, which included walking any hill and running any downhill. This made things easy as I could just run alongside and follow the regimented programme. They all helped each other out passing drinks, food, words of encouragement etc and it was nice to be out of the solitary world of running as hard as possible each day, for the most part entirely alone. As the pace was slightly slower than usual it also meant I ate more, had more energy and therefore found it actually more enjoyable. There were a few moments where Willo in particular felt lower than the other two and I tried to help out where I could in getting his drinks bottles/food out of his bag for him. Once again today I passed Webbo who had gone hard once again and dehydrated badly. We offered him anything he might need but he wanted to just walk on to the next checkpoint where he said he’d spend some time. He carried on but unfortunately was forced to take an IV to solve his problems at the next aid station and drop out of the race. We carried on as a team, catching up to Mickey between CP3 and CP4 where he was singing Proclaimers 500 miles to himself over and over. It drove Frank nuts but it certainly broke up the silence for sure. As we made it into camp that evening I felt better and stronger than at any point during the race. We sat outside together to the rear of the tent in its shade and tried to rehydrate as best we could. One day left, the long day and we’d have finished the 4Deserts Series.


Day 5 was 56 miles. This was going to be the longest RTP stage we had ever run. It was certainly a daunting prospect and I was annoyed to hear that I would be starting in the fast runners group, 3 hours behind the rest of the field. Team Trifecta were going to be in the slower group kicking off at 6am. After they had all set off, Mickey and I, the only 2 from our tent in the quick group tried to get some more sleep without success, so we ate some more and sat around trying to pass the time as best we could. At 9am they gathered the 16 of us on the start line together and set us off into the desert. The group consisted of Luke and Paul from Team CHASE, Mickey, Mehmet, The German Red Bull guy, George the young American, Chris the British guy id passed each of the first 3 days and another Brit, Guy, another German who was leading overall, a Spaniard and an Italian who had completed the race before and would go on to win both the day and the overall event. Lastly our group contained Erica the leading lady. When we set off it became clear that the guys at the front wanted to set a fast pace knowing that the event would be won or lost today but also that they would soon be running through their tent mates and the rest of the field. For this reason alone the long day is always my favourite. There is always someone else to chase into the distance or chat to on the way past, you get lots of encouragement and kind words and so the incentives to keep moving well are huge. I started off running like the others but a lot slower and quickly found myself 3rd from last out of the 16 with only Paul and Mickey behind me. Within about 6km I had caught up to Erica and we started to run together and chat. And that was how it stayed for around 6 hours. We ran the first 42km together all paced almost exactly at 5 miles per hour. We seemed to work brilliantly as a team and this was by far and away the best running section of the entire race for me. In fact today everything seemed to come together and Id go on to finish very strong, this early part having been the foundation for that. Erica’s experience in adventure racing was extensive having covered many extreme multi day non-stop and multi-sport courses. She had always raced as part of a team, but in the races she’d tackled, the requirement was to have at least one woman. Of course over that kind of duration men tend to be stronger and therefore Erica had been the sole female team competitor in teams of stronger males and knew that pacing was absolutely critical to success. With 4 deserts under my belt I also now finally understood how important pacing was and the tiny subtle adjustments we made over the course of the morning kept heart rate consistency almost metronomic. For the first 4 checkpoints we ran easily and freely, always in conversation and the time flew by. As we passed other competitors, people were extremely complimentary of Erica. We got called rockstars and heroes, which frankly helps a massive amount when you’re trying to run 56 miles. I passed Erik de Haart around CP2 – 3 where he had one of his bottle straws stuck up in his nose. I asked him if he was ok as that should have been bothering him immensely and he said yes but it was clear he was in pain and unfortunately his day would end at the next CP.


When we got to 40km I caught up to Bucket who was resting under the canvas in a small village. They fed us some sweet tea and Erica and I pressed on. I had agreed with Bucket that if I caught him at CP6 we would finish by walking in together but he knew that I couldn’t walk it in from this far out if I felt as good as I did. This next section Erica and I started to work more as a team. When the wind started to blow hard she ducked in behind me for some limited drafting and we started to progress uphill into the dune climbing section. It must have seemed at this point to everyone we passed very much like we had run the whole race together at this point the way we were working, where in actual fact it had been that first section of the long day only. We made it up the dunes and into CP5 at 50km where there was a pool of water. Erica wanted a swim and she had been slowing significantly urging me to move on so I did do, again passing Chris the British guy at this point. I ran up the hill to the next CP6 passing many of the faster competitors from Group 1. I felt better than ever and surprised by how much running I had left. I put my ipod on at this point and just loved every minute of it. Just before CP6 I moved past Annabelle Bond and her team as well as the German who had been leading and some other runners from Group 1. CP6 was the overnight stop where you could sleep if you needed. There were probably a dozen runners there just taking it easy and resting after 60 hot kilometres but I wanted to seize the good momentum I had and so Sam filled my water bottles and I moved straight on. I was running into the dark now and there weren’t many ahead of me, roughly 10 from Group 1who’d started 3 hours ahead and 6 or 7 from our fast group. At this point the guy putting out glow sticks came past in the truck and disappeared into the distance leaving a trail of electroluminescence for me to follow. I got to CP7 at 70km once again with Ash Mokhtahri from the very first day who was ahead of me by an hour or so in the overall standings. He was in pain but felt better running so we left CP7 together and ran at an insanely quick pace to CP8 and 80km. I was totally out of breath for that hour or so as we pushed as hard as we could. It seemed to be that we could really keep each other going by finding different tracks through the sand . We hit CP8 and Eberhard was there for us topping bottles up again and blaring rock music out into the silence. He was in great spirits as usual and we refilled for the last 10km into camp. We stayed together for the first 5km here before Ash started to pull away from me, ending up a couple of minutes ahead by the finish. In typical racing the planet style this last stage was about 3km longer than advertised and it took me an hour and 40 minutes to get through it. It went on forever over dunes until I literally just stood still in frustration for how badly they’d judged the distance of this one again. Every race they do the same thing it seems, the last Stage of the 2008 Atacama Crossing was also 30 minutes longer than It should have been, small in the overall scheme of things but massive when you’re in it. Eventually I rounded the bottom of a dune and was faced with the big uphill into the finish, a dune which was pure soft sand and borderline impossible to get up. The drum beat kicked up again as I crossed the finish . I can't remember my time but it was about 12 hours.


I got my water and head to the tent where Team Trifecta were all spread out not yet asleep. They’d had a great day and had finished about an hour ahead of me albeit 2 hours behind given their earlier start. I lay down and felt the pain in my legs properly for the first time. My hip flexors were on fire I literally couldn’t lay on my side for the burning sensation firing up and down the outside of my legs. I managed to get a couple of hours sleep with my feet up on a stool before Mickey came in and then after the sun had risen into Day 6, Bucket came in. The last competitor finished in the early afternoon with only a few minutes to spare to the cut off.


The rest of that day was spent sitting around eating, sleeping, relaxing and doing interviews on camera for the RTP website. Late in the evening there was a rumour some kids were selling crisps and beer behind one of the sand dunes. I thought it was worth a shot so head over there and found out it was true. I spent every penny we had between the 8 of us and we got a few packs of crisps and 2 beers to share between us. Great time to break the rules, just before the last stage…


The following morning we got up around 7 and we were bussed back to Cairo, stinking and tired for the final stage around the pyramids. When we got there we waited for about an hour whilst they set everything up for the media and then we started our 20 minute walk up and past the sphinx and the biggest 2 pyramids before arcing round and finishing on a small climb. We crossed the line together, Lisa waiting for me the other side gave me a big hug and we got hold of some beers and pizza and wandered across to the buses to go back to the hotel.


I felt relieved that it was over but also a little disappointed at how little Id enjoyed this experience in comparison to the others. Each one of them could easily go down as the best 2 weeks of my life, except for Egypt. It all felt a little like we’d been there just to see it through, rather than for the enjoyment of running and competing. I guess Id known in a way that I would feel like that since we started the series and Id told everyone I wasn’t bothered about every going back to the Sahara.


The awards ceremony was excellent as always and we had plenty of beers and drinks before we were asked to come up and accept our awards for the 4Deserts Series. I made a speech on our behalf and Mary announced me as the youngest person every to finish the series, a nice add on to the end of an incredible 3 years.

6 Jun 09 by James Elson

Old Dominion 100 2009

This race was designed to be the second step in training & experience towards the UTMB100 in August. Rocky Raccoon was a good way to learn about running 100 miles but climbs totalled 5500 feet over the 100 miles, as opposed to UTMB which has 30,000. Old Dominion at 14,000 feet has a few monsters but enough rolling road to make them bearable. As the second oldest 100 miler in the States, set in beautiful Virginia countryside i'd expected a deeper field but there weren't that many of us. I flew into Washington and stayed a night with Frank, Chelsea and their horsedog Winston who tried to eat my bag. The next morning we got up, ate some hotdogs and scrambled eggs & Frank dropped me back to the car rental place at Washington.

The next day I drove out to Woodstock and checked in to the Holiday Inn then went to the Fairgrounds where the race started to register for the race. They weighed me in (if you lose or gain too much during the race they pull you out) and I loaded up 7 drop bags with packets of cheese and bread rolls. I put things like burgers and cheese in drop bags gels and energy bars taste like sh*t and I need the real food. I ended up talking at length with a guy called David Snipes who had run OD 4 times before and really knew his stuff. After the course briefing we drove out to the 3 mile to go checkpoint, at the bottom of Woodstock Mountain where you emerge back into civilisation after 97 miles of running and then back into the Fairgrounds so that we could double check the route, which although marked, regularly gets removed by vandals. I didn't want to go wrong at 97 miles so was grateful that we did it. After that I went to Pizza Hut and got involved and then went back to the hotel for some sleep.

Alarm went at 3:15 for the 4am start and put my stuff on and went down there. There weren't that many of us starting which I found suprising as the run is heralded as extremely good by all those who take part each year, plus it is the 2nd oldest 100 in the States, oldest on the East Coast & hence has some prestige. Talking to Ray the Race Director afterwards he blames a lack of finances for marketing and therefore word of mouth which inevitably leads to low numbers. I agree with him but I think what puts most people off is the course profile and cut off. 28 hours is tight for any 100 miler and with 14,000+ feet of climbing I think 28 hours alienates a lot of would be runners. Its not hard enough to go up against Hardrock/ Leadville or Massanutten on the East Coast but its also not flat enough to run fast times.

They had spray painted a pink line on the ground outside the main stable at the fairgrounds and we all lined up behind it in the dark, most without headlamps including me as i had stuck it in the drop bag to pick up at 75 miles. The gun went and some really odd music started coming out of someones car speakers, something you might hear at the end of an old Western and off we went. One circle of the fairground track and then out onto the roads. A police cruiser led us through the town to protect us from all the traffic and I quickly got into stride with David from the day before. The course went 3.1 miles before aid station 1, then more flat until we went over the huge Shenandoah River and to the bottom of Woodstock Mountain. I walked pretty much the whole climb up the 14 switchbacks and at the top the first signs of dawn were appearing 7.2 miles in. Down the otherside on a gravel path David pushed on ahead with a friend of his and I got into just running my 100 mile pace, steady roughly 10 minute miles. Aid Station 3 was Ray in his truck with some water and all until now had been on road/ gravel road so despite the climb & descent real easy pacing.

The pattern for the day was set in the next 4.5 miles however. The course markings disappeared off of the road left into a wood and straight up a long rocky ascent. Nice trail but totally unrunnable as a climb, then back down the other side on nice dropping wooded trail and back on the road to the next Checkpoint. The whole of Old Dominion is road, gravel road, road nothing too serious and then WHAM off you go out of nowhere on a massive off road trail climb and technical descent back to nice easy road again. It makes for interesting running but pretty hard to get any rhythm going. Nevertheless the course meandered down into Fort Valley and between 16 and 32 miles there were just rolling hills and road through farms and quiet Virginia Country. The only distraction were dogs in cages which went insane each time we ran by.

When I got to 32 I felt tired. It was hot probably 80ish and I knew it wasn't going to be an easy day. The next 15 miles were supposed to be hard back to the 47 mile aid station which was also the 32 mile station so a loop within a loop here. We climbed another long hill and trail then dropped down into what they called Duncan Hollow. Essentially it was just a shit up hill climb for about 5 miles on rocky trail that was totally flooded. I passed about 7 people on this stretch all trying to keep their feet dry as I went straight up the middle of the 'river' wading the whole way Im never bothered about getting wet feet it defies belief how long some people spend changing shoes and socks to keep dry feet your gonna get blisters anyway may as well just SUCK IT UP!!!!

Anyway back at 47
I started getting in trouble. Id been drinking loads until now in the oppresive heat but I didn't take on what I needed in the next 4 miles all uphill road into the 51 aid station called Mountain Top. When I got in there I was staggering about and when Ron and Andrew the two guys I ran a lot of this section with asked me a question the words just came out in totally the wrong order. As a result I knew I had to start consuming food and drink straight away or id be in big trouble shortly after. In the end after around 20 minutes of trying to recover the 6 miles down to Edinburgh Gap at 57 miles flew by I really started running strong.

I blew up my own race on the next 8 miles though. I left the aid station at 57 with Ron & head up onto the ATV Trail which was an absolute bitch. Serious sand climbs and descents around a water and wet sand soaked path and it was really hot. Flies everywhere and only one aid station with water (a guy in his truck) in the middle so I pushed on here and actually burnt up a lot of the energy reserves I had left. When I got into Little Fort at 64 I sat in the chair and some guys brought me a burger and some soup which was great but I knew it was slowly but surely all going a bit wrong. Another long climb and then some rolling road brought us into Mudhole Gap which was again full of so many flies I just got water and carried on. Mentally I was shaky on this section but the guy at the aid told me I was the last one on the course still on for sub 24 time, with 13 in front of me. That was good to hear.

I went on the 6 mile trail to Elizabeth Furnace Mile 75 and it was really nice trail running, smooth compacted but despite that I was all over the place. My mind was playing the old tricks you naturally suffer ie. You've got 30 miles left with the 2 monster climbs still to come and you're already totally cooked. You've been running 16 hours and you've definitely got 8 left minimum.

Still when I got to Elizabeth Furnace at 75 miles it was still light. Id been told that the next 8 miles up Sherman Gap and down were awful. I'd read a pre race report from a guy called Jay Finkle 5 time sub 24 hour finisher outlining that Sherman Gap was by far and a way the worst part of the course and that you should try to do as much of it in daylight as possible because its long and technical. Id known this all day and I think having this in the back of my mind had maybe caused me to push too hard earlier on when I knew I was tired.

Anyway in that Aid Station the Volunteers told me I could have a pacer. I said thanks but I didn't have a crew with me, but a 16 year old kid called Cole from the local school was there headtorch on, food in hand ready to go over the mountain with a runner. He offered to go with me and I was absolutely stunned. I said yeah sure that would be great but bear in mind there won't be any running involved until we get over the mountain as I was feeling pretty wrecked. He said cool and in hindsight I think he saved my race.

It took almost 3 hours to cover the next 8 miles up and over Sherman. The top was so steep I passed another runner literally panting and panicking because at 80 miles the massive climb had sent his Heart Rate through the roof. He recovered but I thought for a minute he was going to collapse which would have been a really bad idea up there. Talking to Cole took my mind of the run. We talked films, facebook, running all that American High School stuff that he was into and I knew by the end he'd end up running this race himself one day he was loving the pain!

When we got to the Aid Station at 83 i shook his hand and told him if I broke 24 id send him the buckle you get for beating the 1 day clock. I then caught up with Ron again and we climbed up and over the 2nd bastard climb called Veach Gap. Down the other side into Veach West at 87 wasn't as long as Sherman but again we were wading through the river and it was absolutley pitch black. I hadn't replaced my headtorch batteries (idiot) so i was tripping everywhere in the half light. At Veach I felt close to the edge. With 13 left I knew id be ok but i was absolutely gone. No energy left at all. The next 4 were back on open road and it was so dark the black top road looked like a magic carpet. I went delirious here imagining peoples mail boxes were animals and people and stuff but I kept moving forward until close to the 91 mile aid station. I was looking for anywhere to lie down at that point. I almost lay on the road I was so tired. I knew i was going to finish but that to break 24 hours id have to run most of the remaining 10 miles and that was looking very hard to do. Instead I hobbled into the 91 mile aid station and sat in the chair again. The guys there kind of went 'don't stop you're nearly there' and i couldn't be bothered to tell them 'look lads there's still 9 miles left and im not sure i can go 9 metres' but they could tell thats what I was thinking. I shut my eyes for a few seconds and then got annoyed with myself for being a pussy and stood up to move off. I sort of stumbled forward back onto the road but realised i wasn't going anywhere. In fact a car had come up the road & I had almost stepped out in front of it. The aid station captain was holding me by my collar to stop me walking into its path. When it went by he released me with a kind of 'off you go now' in the way you would talk to a 3 year old which I guess was about my mental age at that point.

From 91 there was a 2 mile climb to the top of Woodstock Mountain. The racebook mentions this point when you enter as follows:

'There are fancier ways to spend Saturday night in America. None better than to stake your claim at a spot on the top of Woodstock mountain, about seven miles from the finish. Some look like the survivors of a battle. They are the victors who have actually been in the arena.'

Ron and I had some coke at the 93 aid station and took absolutely ages descending the 14 switchbacks down to the bottom of the road we had run up in the morning because our quads were screaming at us. We tried to run little bits and then just hobbled a bit acknowledging that it just wasn't going to happen.

We got into the 97.36 aid station with 24 hours 30 on the clock and ran the last 2.7 miles in 27 minutes. The last lap round the fairground again we were picking up some good pace still. No ties allowed in this event so I let Ron cross first and then followed him in 24 hours 58 minutes and 34 seconds.

The finish was just a small banner and a man under a gazebo with a watch who signed us in. We said thanks and went on our way. All that running to be witnessed by only one person at the end of such a journey. Ron and I exchanged a quick hug and I grabbed the car and went back to the hotel.

Footnote: 1 of the runners Dan Brenden who has finished the Grand Slam and Last Great Race multiple times went wrong at 47 and ran 9 miles to another aid station before they told him what he'd done. Instead of dropping he turned around and ran the 9 miles back and then finished the rest of the 100 miles totalling 118 miles in 26 hours. I will remember than any time I make a mistake in course reading or add unnecessary distance to a race as the mental strength it must have taken not to quit at the point he realised he was going to have to have run an extra 18 to finish must have been absolutely enormous.

12 Feb 09 by James Elson

Rocky Raccoon 100 2009


A couple of days before the race I booked a hire car from Houston airport and a hotel just off of the side of the I-45 freeway, packed a lot of mars bars and flew to Texas. It felt strange going off to take on a big race knowing that I wouldn't be meeting up with the rest of the Endurance Heroes. RR100 is widely renowned as one of the easier 100's as it takes in only 5500 feet of climb and is largely on nice soft woodland trail around Huntsville State Park. I've got to say that the scenery was stunning but I doubt i'll ever run a race with 5 x 20 mile loops again. This time it made sense, I had no crew, no pacers and had to drive straight back to the airport after the race so needed to be back at the car immediately at the end, not 100 miles away from it.

I got to Texas on the Thursday night had a Mcdonalds which was just great. The nuggets were good & the burger was dripping grease much more so than in the UK. The next morning I went to Wal Mart, bought some food and drove to the park to give in my drop bag which was going to be taken out to the aid station at the 6.4 mile and 12.4 mile point. This was a waste of time as I actually never got anything out of it and had to leave so soon after the end of the race that I didn't have time to get it back! I tried not to change my body clock for this race as it was a 6am start on the Saturday so I went to bed at 7pm and got up at 3am, ate a lasagne and then spaghetti with Meat Balls from the microwave, got in the car and drove down to the start line. I put my bag behind a tree near the finish line tent and lined up with everyone else. Before the start I looked at the 10 people around me and thought to myself 'at least 3 of us aren't gonna finish this' and told myself there was no way I would come all this way and DNF....

The first hour we jogged around in the woods following each others headlamps. The light came through around 7 30 and most of the trail was good. The 6 mile out and back section at the top of the course was long, undulating and littered with thick roots and was going to be difficult to negotiate in the dark of the night but it was good in the daylight. I managed to cover the first 20 miles in 3:34 which was right on for the schedule I had written across the front of my pack. The next 20 were mentally the hardest. I was enjoying running but had that slightly sickening sensation that 80 miles to the finish line was a long way. There were around 250 x 100 milers and 200 x 50 milers so with the loop format you saw people all the way around. Loop 3 luckily went like a dream. Haruki Makayami writes in his book 'What I talk about when I talk about running' which describes ruising through some miles, how I felt for this middle 20: 'As I run I tell myself to think of a river. But essentially I am not thinking of a thing. All I do is keep on running in my cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.' I came back to the start finish in 11:36 & that is where it all started going wrong.

I went for a sit down on the loo near my bag and for want a nicer way of describing this, ended up wiping half of the skin of my rear end off in the process. When i came out every step felt like someone had been rubbing at it with sandpaper for an hour. I tried to address the issue with vaseline but it was barely covering the problem. The next three miles it got dark and i started tripping over the roots. There seemed a lot in the day time but now they were everywhere. I went down quite hard twice and with the pain of my rear end, the slowly depleting energy reserves and lack of daylight I got a bit low. In the end I got to the turn around aid station and sat in a chair for 1 minute. Frank had spoken at length to before hand about how he had not sat down, not stopped, not changed clothes in the entire of his journey through the 2008 Leadville Trail 100, and I liked that. Very impressive. It seemed that i needed 60 seconds of 'personal time' here though just to remind myself that this was all a good experience & relatively speaking I was still fine. I stood up again and pressed on up the hill with short but quick steps and two guys coming the other way doing the last stretch of the 50 stopped and give me a round of applause with the comment of 'nice peppy step brother very inspirational.' This made me burst out laughing & helped me to start to refocus.

I got back round to 80 miles in 16 something and with my rear end still on fire reapplied a large amount of vaseline. It was at this point that the winner Andy Jones Wilkins carried himself over the line, just a massive performance, but I had for the first time EVER succesfully paced myself to within my target time of sub 24 hours and felt reasonably comfortable on the last loop. I ran out of the aid station and pushed through it as best i could hitting mars bars every 30 minutes, stumbling a lot, falling a bit but always moving forward. In the end I got round the last lap in a horrible time but crossed the 100 mile mark in 22:54. I was delighted but knew that I had to focus on the other endurance element of the trip, getting home.

I drove to the hotel got my stuff and drove straight to the airport. I was in such a rush a didn't have time to properly tend to the chaffed areas which therefore remained fairly exposed. I must have heard 'good job' 1000 times on the run but I was now making a decidedly POOR job of conducting myself in an honourable fashion. My legs were locking up so I was shuffling around and wincing. People were staring and i felt paranoid that they were trying to move away from me. I found a diner and waded into a cheese and bacon burger with fries and onion rings. Then I made my way to the Seafood restaurant next to our departure gate and had some pasta. I was so hungry it was unreal. I basically ate 20 mars bars on the run, a couple of small cups of pasta at the aid stations but that was it. I had to sit cramped up next to the window for 10 hours, got off the other end and literally couldn't walk. When I got home Monday lunchtime I found a gas man in the road outside and all of the pavement around the front door dug up. I knew what he was going to say before I even asked and I was pretty annoyed about it. No gas. No Heating. No Cooker. No Hot Water. I bought 3 packs of sandwiches from the shop over the road got in a sleeping bag, got under the duvet, ate all the sandwiches and went to sleep until it was time for work the next morning. Still I am now the proud owner of a sub 24 buckle for a 100 mile race. I am happy about that.