Texas in February. I'm going to start this post in the style of a true Englishman, talking about the weather. I first came out to run Rocky in 2009. It was my first 100 miler and I was greeted with glorious sunshine, 65 degree temperatures and low humidity. It felt like a summers day. Last year, I found a quarter of an inch of ice secured to the exterior of the car on race morning thanks to an ice storm and a temperature of minus 5 degrees. This year we had the most specatacular thunderstorm I have ever seen. I was rooming with Ian Sharman at Motel 6, last years course record holder and joint coach on our new Centurion Running coaching program. When we opened the motel room door on Saturday morning his first words to me were 'well I guess there won't be any records today'. The drive to the state park was like being on a Hollywood movie set, lightning illuminating the sky every 90 seconds and rain falling so heavily on the windscreen ('shield') that I was sure I'd missed the exit to the park and was heading back towards Houston and the airport. I probably would have just carried on if I hadn't seen the giant statue of Sam Houston leaning white out of the darkness signalling the turning in to the park entrance.
On the Friday afternoon we'd gone down to the park for the race briefing with Ian's crew chief and previous RR100 finisher Meredith Terranova. Just before the briefing, there was a kids 1 mile race and we ended up marshalling the half mile turn around point whilst Ian handed out the medals to the finishers at the end. We hung around and chatted with Bob the chief over at Drymax socks for a while whilst Ian got called away for signatures and photo ops which he clearly found quite surreal but we thought very funny. I even got to hold his water bottle a few times. The briefing was short and we didn't stay long before we grabbed dinner and an early night.
The course at Rocky Raccoon consists of 5 x 20 mile loops. There are quite a few out and back sections and consequently the opportunity of seeing other runners on course isn't just a possiblity, it is a guaranteed certainty. The course is all trail, with 5500 feet of climbing and no strictly technical sections. That being said there are a couple of short steep ascents which certainly get you working and lots of rolling terrain which as per usual, turns from easily runnable to positively mountainous by the 5th loop. The course also has one more significant card up it's sleeve - roots. They are absolutely everywhere and especially at night they are out to get you. I don't know anybody who's run this race and not ended up on the floor at least a few times. It's easy to look at Ian's 12:44 last year and think that the course represents a guaranteed PB opportunity. It's undoubtedly quick and many come out here looking for it, but those who don't train on the trails come away sorely disappointed at the level of concentration they need to apply to get around in one piece and in good time. How Ian turned in a 12:44 around there is, however, completely beyond me. I think if the trail were crushed gravel, even with more climb I could understand it better but it isn't. You can't switch off even for a minute and concentrating hard while moving that fast takes a real level of skill.
This year there was one much more significant issue to face and that was the mud. As we arrived at the startline, the tarps that had been laid down for our drop bags had turned into paddling pools. I dumped mine under a disused barbeque instead, reluctantly removed my jacket and ran to the startline. I stood cowering behind Ian, Hal Koerner, Karl Meltzer and the 2011 Badwater champ Oswaldo Lopez and and 90 seconds later we were off into the abyss.
Rain anybody? RR2012 start c/o Bob at Drymax.
I had a very clear target in mind for this race based on the training I had been able to log. During November 2011 I had banked precisely zero miles in recovery from a bad bike crash. I had started training in early December and had 8 weeks of solid base training under my belt, ranging from 55 to 105 miles per week, averaging out at maybe 65-70. I had included no speed or hill work at all prior to the race and the only tempo sessions to speak of were the workouts I had at the CC to GE marathon, Country to Capital and one other longer run on the Thames Path. My expectations were based on my legs feeling strong, but having no significant speed. I felt that a good day would be good enough to get me a time some way under 18 hours and that even a poor run would see me under my 2009 time on this course. My plan was to pace for 18 hours, pick it up if I felt strong and take what I could get if not. I was absolutely determined, however, that I would ignore everybody elses pace and run my own race. The importance of doing that in a 100 mile race, in particular over any other distance, is enormous. Scanning the results yesterday it is amazing to see how many people lay down crazy fast first loops before spiralling out to 4th and 5th loop times almost three times slower. Even pacing throughout the race is arguably the only way to have a successful and certainly the only way to have an enjoyable day.
I found myself running early on with a Russian guy calle Dima who had finished last years Tor Des Geants and a couple of Americans shooting for 18 hours too. We formed a nice pace group, sensible through the first hour of darkness and staying upright through the streams and open water ponds that had formed on various sections. Keeping anything dry was a joke and certainly prudence was required through the thicker sections. Whilst it was undoubtedly the wettest period of the day, the worst of the mud was yet to come, as 600 runners behind us were yet to go through it, on each of 5 laps and multiple times per lap. It became a real mess. Very quickly I realised that it was taking more energy to move over the terrain that it had last year and an increase in effort yielded slower times. I made it through loop 1 significantly slower than 2011 in 3:07 and as per last year saw Ian hotly pursued by Oswaldo, Hal and Karl around 5 miles ahead as I came through 17.5 and they through 22.5. To run a 3:07 felt like a 2:55 in 2011 terms and Ian felt the same way. The next time I saw him was on another section of out and back towards the end of his second loop. He shouted out to me that the mud was making it very difficult to stay in touch with the time he wanted to run and it was quite obvious we were all going to have to re-evaluate our goals. Still that's what happens in trail running and highlights the importance of having a Plan B. Having lost significant time against my pre race target even in the first 2 loops, I switched my focus towards a 20 hour finish instead.
I came through the 40 mile start finish out on to loop 3 in 6:39 for just under 10 minute mile pace and felt confident with no problems to report. My legs felt great and I knew I had a lot of running left in them. Loop 3 was again relatively incident free but the pools of mud out on the course which I had powered through earlier, had become soup like and extremely tricky to negotiate without having a strong core/ stabilising muscles. Indeed Ian tweaked his hip flexor in the mess and sadly had to pull out just past the end of lap 3. He will be back again and on a clear day I have no doubt that the course record would have been in his sights once again. I reached the 60 mile point in a good level of daylight with 10:28 on the clock requiring a very straight forward 9:32 final 40 miles to come in under 20 hours. I could see the carnage unfolding around and a lot of people had chosen to stop on account of the conditions exacerbating the inevitable issues commonly faced during a 100 mile run. In fact on the womens side, I had already passed Liza Howard and Jill Perry the two favourites who were on their way out too.
I grabbed my headtorch and my next 20 miles worth of gels and went out on to loop 4 with a spring in my step and felt good. My aim was to bank as much as I could mileage wise before the sun went down and made the roots and mud/ water even more tricky to negotiate. I had in my mind that a 4 hour loop, a paltry 12 min mile pace would get me in a good position to tackle loop 5 with plenty of time in the bank. The middle part of every loop is a 6 mile section called the Dam Road loop, it is more remote than the rest of the course and probably the trickest section. As I came back through Dam Road aid station at mile 72 I began to experience some pretty severe chest pains. I shrugged them off and put it down to indigestion as I switched the lamp on and made it back to the 80 mile point in 14:50.
By now the temperature had dropped significantly and as people's pace dropped in the dark and added distance, so did their core temperatures and there were a few very sorry looking souls out on the course even at a point less than half way through the race. I set off on loop 5 with strong legs and with plenty of energy but as soon as I picked up my walk into a run, my chest felt extremely tight and frankly I was concerned. I continued with prudence and power walked my way through the first 3 miles or so. Slowing down, cooling down and with pretty severe blisters the last lap was set to be rather less pleasant than the preceeding 4. By the back side of the Dam Road Loop at mile 90 I was having real trouble breathing deeply and knew that my running was done. Even dropping into a power walk I found myself cruising past a lot of people still run-shuffling in that all too familiar ultra style. I feel bad about saying it, but knowing that you are lapping people, some of them for the second time does make you feel better about your own position. It certainly made me realise that suffering it out for 15 miles was pretty insignificant vs spending another 15 hours out in the mud bath.
By now my Garmin had died and when I reached Park Road aid at mile 95.6, they told me the time was 1:09am, 19:09 into the race. I wish I could say that I had it in me at that point to dig out a 51 minute finish, but I aboslutely didn't and so I stuck my freezing cold hands in my pockets and strolled it in. I really enjoyed that last section reflecting on the enormity of the distance put behind, knowing that I was going to finish and under no real time pressure.
In the end I crossed the line in 20:19 for a PB but a mile away from what I had hoped to achieve. Certainly there are mixed emotions coming away from the race. Turning up to 'run a time' is against the principles of most of my training where I log miles when I want and do so without the pressure of a watch, pace or splits. That being said there is a time for running against the clock. In the end you have to take the conditions handed to you on the day. Race enough and you are going to be handed golden days where everything is set up for you to race to your full potential and capitalise on it for a 'PB'. Other days, like Saturday, you can have the race of your life and bank a time 1/2/4 hours slower than you would have under the right conditions. That's life and a huge part of why trail running is so much fun.
I'm pleased I was able to switch to plan B without losing focus but disappointed that I was forced to slow down in the final quarter by something 'out of my control' such as nutrition/ hydration/ leg strength. It was undoubtedly the onset of asthma as the temperature dropped during the night time stage that made my chest contract. I probably could have run through it had I not harboured a lingering concern that it might just be something a little more serious.... In the end it looks like 45% of the runners dropped which I guess shows just how important it is either to re-evaluate your goals and carry on pushing even when it might seem pointless, after all a 100 mile finish is still a 100 mile finish. Or to enjoy running around in a lake.
Another good year in the books for this race now 20 years old. In the end Hal Koerner won the men's race with a 13:24. That is a truly astounding time on a course playing maybe 5% to 10% harder than 2011. Could he have gone sub 13 on a clear day? I think so. Sadly for him rather than being able to celebrate he found out at the finish line that his rental car had been towed with all his stuff in it and having left his car keys on the front tyre. Not ideal after a 100 mile run. Karl Meltzer and Oswaldo Lopez secured ver respectable 2nd and 3rd place finishes in the mid 14 hour range. After the top 2 girls dropped, it was left to Sabrina Moran to run in with a 17:09, winning by almost three hours. The 2nd and 3rd place girls were the two finishers in front of me.
Ian will be back next year. So will a host of top guys and girls shooting for hard early season racing and potential course records. I think I will be too, it's hard to say why but the race really has something about it, especially if the weather is good and hopefully there'll be a few more Brits there too. Who knows I might even be able to run a bit faster....