Forward progress…. that’s what kept going through my head over and over this past Saturday. I had planned for this race for almost 6 months, trained for it since last October and now I was in the middle of it with 33.67 miles down and heading back out for my last loop.
In April of 2012 David Murphy had inspired me to complete my first Ultra race at the Ouachita Trails 50K. After the race I talked to him and Charley about what would be a good 50 Mile race as a first and they both suggested Rocky Raccoon since it was relatively flat compared to the trails around where we live and because it was a really well organized and well supported race for a first 50.
So in October I threw out the idea to my buddy Adam to see if he would able and interested in helping crew me for my first 50 Miler. He of course said I was nuts and asked where it was. When I told him Rocky Raccoon in Huntsville Texas he just shook he head and laughed it off.
Adam and I hit the road for the 9 1/2 hour drive to Huntsville on Thursday. The plan was to get into Huntsville that evening and have a day to relax, get familiar with the Huntsville State Park, get a short run in on the trails and be there in plenty of time for packet pickup and the race briefing. Friday morning we were set to meet David, Jon and Stephanie for a easy run on the trails. They had all ran Rocky previously and knew what to expect. I on the other hand really had no idea. David and Jon had helped get me prepared in the weeks leading up that while it is a relatively flat 50 miler, there are some hills and to make sure I had some hill training in(not really a problem around SW Missouri). I had also heard the crazy stories from last years race in which almost 2 inches of rain fell on the morning of the race it was a huge mud fest. So it was nice to get out on the trails to see what was coming and it was a great way to calm the nerves a bit with David and Jon’s antics on the trail.
We ran to what would be the first aid station(Nature Center) and back – just a little over 6 miles. As we were coming back in, Coach was waiting at the trail head after just flying in from CO. Another teammate Tanci had picked him up at the airport and met us. Coach only had 20 minutes on the schedule for that day with emphasis on getting off of our feet ASAP…. just keep quiet and don’t tell him …. leave it to David to screw that up and blab to him that I had just ran 6 miles instead of 20 minutes… Luckily Jon distracted him with his wisdom about milking cows for ice cream with hay(the video helps explain this better)
The race briefing that evening was pretty cool. It was crazy to see all of the people that had signed up for the 50 and 100 milers and quite honestly pretty intimidating. There were some serious looking ultra runners there and all I kept thinking was… “Man, what have I gotten myself into… I am no where near the level these folks are”. But the really cool thing I have found about ultras is that everyone is really friendly and encouraging… and based upon the hands of the fellow first time 50 milers in the group – it was cool to see that this was a great group of runners!
4am came really early Saturday morning – especially after not being able to go to sleep until after midnight even with going to bed at 9:45(nerves!!). Adam and I picked up Coach at his hotel and headed to Huntsville State Park to see David Murphy and Jeff Jones off on the 100 miler and to make any last minute adjustments for the start of the 50. The 100 milers kicked off at 6am still in the dark and after they started all you could see was lights bobbing through the woods. The nerves were getting high for me at this point as I watched the seconds tick off waiting until 7am for the 50 miler start.
I lined up in the group and as the start was counted down my heart rate was already pushing zone 2 before we even took a step. After a mile or so I settled in behind a couple of guys from Houston that had just ran the Houston marathon and had on a whim signed up that week for the 50 miler when some cancellations opened up some new spots. Neither had been on a trail run before and it was nice to calm the nerves talking for a bit. I was holding a steady lower zone 2 through the first aid station and felt great as Adam caught up with me at the AS. I quickly moved on out of the aid station an on my way to the DamNation section.
This part of the trail was new territory for me and for the most part it was much of the same – pretty easy going trails as long as you picked your feet up over the roots. My pace was holding steady in the 10-11 mile/mile range at a lower zone 2 HR. I was surprised to find Coach tucked into the woods as we rounded the corner coming up to the next aid station. He said my time looked good and told me to keep track of everything I ate and how much I drank on each loop to communicate to him. I also met David Murphy, and Jeff Jones going out of the DamNation aid station as I was coming in – they were both looking strong. I came into the DamNation aid station and just needed a refill on my water and took some Enduralytes on out to make the loop around the dam and back to DamNation AS.
The loop back around was had a section that you run along the edge of the lake that is pretty much completely exposed with no tree cover… I was already worried about how this would translate later in the afternoon when the temps were supposed to get in the mid 70s. I made the loop back around and in and out of DamNation pretty quickly. The next stretch of the course would turn out to be the roughest section of the entire loops as the day progressed. This section consisted of quite a bit of jeep road sections that were a steady uphill with a straight shot that just seemed to go on forever even though it was just a few miles.
As I came in to the Park Road aid station, Adam was there waiting with some GenUCan and after re-applying some BodyGlide to keep the chaffing under control, I was back out for the final stretch back to Dogwood aid station and the end of the first loop. After I left Park Road, I realized that I should have taken a few more Enduralytes while I was stopped. Being the ultra-coordinated runner that I am, I decided I could get those out of my pack and take them without missing a step. 2 seconds later I was laying face first in the dirt with a nice coating of sand all over my arms and neck to help convince me maybe I was off my game today in terms of coordination. Nothing hurt.. other than my pride so onwards we went.
I met Jon Wilson as he was heading out for his second loop when I had about a mile or so left to go on the first loop. I finished up the first 16.67 mile loop in 2:58 – which was much faster than I had anticipated. I knew that the aid stations could kill my times if I lingered too much. I also knew that with the temps as warm as they were I would need to keep fresh dry clothes on a much as possible. I had planned separate shirts and shorts for each loop to help with that and I changed as quickly as possible to get back out on the trail. I opted to leave my feet alone since there was no noticeable issues at this point. It made a WORLD of difference to start out the second loop completely dry!
The second loop was pretty uneventful. I had a few “near-misses” because of getting lazy and not picking my feet up but I never went down. As I had the loop around DamNation the second time, I started to get the first inkling of being tired. I had kept telling myself that I was already on my second loop which meant I was that much closer to just having one lap left. However when I crossed the 25 mile point it kinda sunk in, that while I had been telling myself that I was close to just having one lap left to go, I really was just now half-way through… and had half of the distance to go….
The jeep road section back to Park Road seemed even longer this trip. At this point my pace had slowed considerably. With the uphill section and the monotony of just looking at a never-ending straight line I was down to 12-13 minute pace. Seeing Adam as I came in to Park Road was a shot in the arm I needed! I tried to down more GenUCan but ended up having to take it with me and carry two bottles to help get it all down. The last 3.4 miles going back to Dogwood this time seemed longer and I seemed to be halfway just stumbling along. At one point on the last little uphill section I looked up and thought to myself – That’s weird… it looks like that woman is running with her top down…. …no… wait… she IS running with her top partially down…. wait… looks like she has suction cups on her breasts…. hang on… I am losing it and getting delirious. At this point I kinda had a moment of panic wondering what I would do if I got incoherent and wasn’t sure how to fix it. Then as she was getting closer I could hear the rhythm of a pump working. Ok.. so I am either about to lose it mentally or I am in the company of some really hard core runners – so much so that they can run either a 50 or 100 miler, pump breast milk, and not miss a step on a rooty course. It was only later in the evening while talking to Jon Wilson that it was confirmed that I was not delirious since Jon told a similar recount. Kudos to the hard core runner that let nothing stop her progress!!
I finished lap two in 3:48 – almost an hour slower than my first loop. I had also crossed over the threshold of the longest distance I had ever run. I changed shorts and shirt and then decided I should probably change socks because I was getting a hot spot on the ball of my right foot. After taking my socks off I was amazed at how much sand I had on my feet. I really couldn’t tell just running. I rinsed them off good and put on dry socks and told Adam to keep the duct tape handy as I may need to use it if the new socks didn’t help the hot spots. I grabbed some PB&J sandwiches, chips, and bottle refills and was off for the final loop.
I’m not gonna lie – it was TOUGH to convince myself to go back out on the last loop. I just kept telling myself that I was on the LAST lap. Funny the mental games you play with yourself . The last loop was pretty brutal and kicked my butt. Up to this point, I had run all of the first loop including all hills, the second loop I ran about 90% of it and walked a few of the uphill sections for a break. The last loop was a constant battle internally of whether or not I was on an uphill section that I could convince myself was OK to walk. As I left Nature Center aid station for the long stretch around DamNation I told Adam I needed to take my headlamp because it could be a really long time before I made it back to get it.
Turns out I would have been fine. I made it back to the Park Road aid station with sunlight to spare. It was awesome to see Adam again again and he was great to tell me that I was just a few miles away from hitting a new goal. I left out of Park Road at basically a catatonic shuffle rather than a run. I had hoped to finish between 10 and 11 hours. I knew coming into the last aid station that I was going to miss that by a bit but still felt like my secondary goal of finishing in under 12 hours would be easily within reach. I kept pushing and with about a mile left the sun sank enough that the headlamp became necessary. It’s weird the way the headlamp kinda gets you in a tunnel vision environment and how surreal everything feels at that point!
I came up the last uphill section that left about 1/3 of mile to go and pushed to get back to an actual run instead of stumble. I could see the lights of the Dogwood aid station and it hit me that I was actually finishing!! As I crossed the finish line at 11 hours and 35 minutes there was a wonderful lady handing out medals and the best hugs you can imagine. I was soaking wet from sweat, salt crusted to my face and arms and I am sure smelling like death baking in the sun and she wanted a hug…. I though you are one crazy lady and just basically laid my shoulders against her. She said – That’s not a hug – give me a REAL hug… I gotta admit that was a great feeling to finish up the race with someone truly proud of each and every finisher and undeterred by the raw effects of 11 1/2 hours on your feet sweating and trudging along.
I collapsed into a chair after that and Adam helped me get comfortable and off my feet for a bit. It was still quite a while before David would be done with his 100 and I desperately wanted a shower and clean clothes. Adam drove me back to the hotel so I could shower, change and get something to eat.
We headed back to Hunstville State Park around 9:30pm and caught up with Jon Wilson who had also grabbed a shower and some hydration. The plan was to stay out and watch David come in. It was really amazing to see the 100 milers coming in and changing for cooler temps and getting fresh batteries for the headlamps and watching their strength as they headed back out in the cool pitch black night. David ended up crossing the finish at 1:37am and a total time of 19:37 hitting his goal of a sub 20 100!
This was one of the toughest events I have ever participated in. Jon Wilson said it best when he said “It’s gonna hurt, then it’s gonna hurt some more, and then when you think it’s getting better.. it’s gonna hurt even more”. My feet hurt like they never have before, my legs hurt even when at a slow shuffle, my arms and back hurt…. but it was the greatest feeling ever! No one can quite explain it to you – you just have to experience it yourself!
So this makes my second “Ultra” event. When I finished the 50K back in April, I for whatever reason didn’t really feel like I was a true Ultrarunner. So I thought the 50 miler was my entry into the exclusive club. After finishing the Rocky Raccoon 50… I still don’t feel like I am really an Ultrarunner. So to answer the question I have heard several times in the past week – Are you going to do a 100 miler next?? Yes… yes I would love to have Rocky be my first 100 next year. But… chances are that even with that I still wont feel like a real Ultrarunner.
What will it take? I really don’t know. I do think that Adam summed it up pretty well though when he said that what was most inspiring thing was not the crazy fast runners that looked like they were floating along each loop. Don’t get me wrong – I hope to be able to run it like those guys some day. However to see the folks(some in their 70s) that lined up at the start of the day on Saturday, knowing full well that they would be pushing it to finish in the 30 hours before the cutoff…. but yet loop after loop had the mental toughness to head back out with a smile on their face. The ones that did not look like your typical runners…. either bigger, older, slower… whatever the case – they went out with the attitude they were going to finish .. not matter what. That’s what its all about!!
To all of the Tejas Trails team, the volunteers, the crewing folks, the aid station teams, and everyone that helped make this event possible – THANK YOU!! A HUGE thanks to Adam for giving up a 4 days with his family and leaving his wife at home with a newborn and his 3 year old with the flu to come down, walk miles on end, handle my sweaty dirty clothes, refill water bottles, and always keep pushing me to help me cross the finish line. And a HUGE thanks to my wife and family for putting up with all of the training and hours of running to get me to this point! This was one of my favorite events I have ever participated in and it is because of all of their efforts that made it that way!