Great race story. Congrats!
Feb 08, 2022
Of the four races I’m doing for the Texas Trail Championship, the Rocky Raccoon is the only 100-miler, and by far, the longest. More than 1.5 times as long as the second-longest race.
Despite the name, the course hardly has any rocks and isn’t particularly technical. Instead, the surface is mostly dirt, frequently punctuated with roots. While almost none of the course is flat, there are also no climbs to speak of; essentially the entire course is a mild incline or decline. Before the race, I’d heard a few people describe Rocky Raccoon as “somewhat hilly”, and I can only assume they were from Houston, which is nearby and entirely flat.
Huntsville State Park is a 3.5 hour drive (aka three days of biking) from where I live, and the race started at 6:00 AM. That made a hotel room a necessity. The drive was mostly uneventful, which is usually a good thing. A non-scenic part of Texas at a non-scenic time of year. A handful of small towns and a lot of dollar stores.
It had been especially cold in the days leading up to the race, barely making it above freezing Thursday afternoon, and it stayed below freezing all day Friday. It was in this weather that we had to stand in line for ~45 minutes at packet pick-up. Normally, this would bother me - I’m a wimp in the cold - but the two folks in line next to me served as a pleasant distraction and the time flew by.
Rick, from Pensacola, is a veteran 100-miler, having completed many more ultras than I have, but rarely beats 24 hours and sometimes DNFs. But give him some credit; he gets out there and does ‘em! How many people do 100-milers at all?
Emily, from Atlanta, was entering her first 100-miler, and understandably, was managing pre-race nerves. One of the first things she mentioned was her uncertainty if she was prepared.
“What’s your training looked like?” asked Rick.
“Well, I’ve done some other races, did a 50-miler, a few 70-mile weeks, an-”
“You’re good,” asserted Rick. And he was right.
Rocky Raccoon would be only my second 100-miler, so I tried putting Emily’s mind at ease telling her how my first went (rather well), and noted that our training was reasonably comparable. By the end of the conversation, I got the feeling all three of us felt equally confident in one another.
Rick had driven here alone in a rental pickup truck that his company paid for, and Emily had come with an entourage of friends that would serve as her crew during the race. We parted ways, and I retired to a small hotel room with a noisy heater. No matter how comfortable a hotel room is, you never sleep as well as you do in your own bed, especially when you’re amped up about tomorrow’s race. This time, I tried bringing my own pillow, in hopes it’d feel more like home. It helped.
Awoke at 4:30 AM, 1.5 hours before gun time, and immediately ate breakfast. Hoped I’d use the bathroom before gun time, but never did. Threw on some running clothes, added a couple layers on top of that, packed up the car, and drove out to the state park.
It was cold. Really cold. -6 °C cold (21 °F). That’s not the coldest temperature I’ve experienced, but it’s the coldest temperature in which I’ve ever run.
Most runners were allowed to start whenever they felt like it, since the race used chip timing. I imagine most decided to at least wait until sunrise (7:15 AM), or perhaps start an hour after that, once it had warmed up a little.
However, If you wanted to be eligible for any awards, you had to start in the first wave, at 6:00 AM. It was cold. It was dark. I don’t do well with either of those things.
The first half-mile of the course isn’t even on a trail; rather, the course is frequently marked with signs and simply cuts a path through grassy picnic areas. At night, it seemed like it would be hard to follow, so I was happy staying behind a small group, as long as I could keep a visual on whoever was in front.
Over the course of the first few miles, the leader changed a few times, and I eventually settled in behind, in second place. It was probably wise to trust someone else’s pace, and besides that, my hands were already killing me. Using someone else’s body as a windbreak might help a little.
After four miles, the trail came to a T-intersection. The signs seemed to point us left, but from our right, we could see the lights of an aid station, about 100 m away.
“Hey, over here!” someone called. We couldn’t see them through the darkness.
We stopped. “The sign points left!” answered the guy in front of me.
“You’re supposed to come here first!”
“Are you sure??”
“Yeah, you come here, make a U-turn, and then go that way.”
“That’s very confusing,” replied another runner.
The three of us jogged over to the aid station (aka Gate), turned around, then jogged back in the opposite direction. It would be light by the time we reached the next aid station, so I left my waist light behind in my drop bag, but kept my head lamp on.
I was woefully under-dressed. Down to about freezing, I’m usually good while wearing only a long-sleeve shirt and a thin pair of gloves. The act of running warms you up, so not much clothing is necessary.
Today, I was wearing a long-sleeve shirt, a sleeveless shirt over that, a slightly better pair of gloves, and a beanie. For the most part, I didn’t feel cold, except my hands. I’m anemic, and that means poor circulation to my extremities, resulting in hands and feet that get cold like nobody’s business. Knowing that, I should’ve worn better gloves.
By the time we reached the second aid station (Nature Center), it was obvious I’d lost a lot of dexterity when I tried clenching and opening my hands to keep blood flowing. My fingers no longer moved independently all that well, and the cold sensation was working its way up my forearms, stopping somewhere around my elbows. Sunrise was only about 15 minutes away and there was enough ambient light. I ditched my headlamp and continued. Running still felt easy.
Even after sunrise, I wasn’t warming up. Huntsville State Park is thickly wooded, so it took over an hour before the sun was above tree level on the horizon, and even after that, little sunlight reached the forest floor, where we were running. Another runner overtook me for second at some point, but for the most part, three of us were running together for about ten miles. The other two talked to each other off and on. My teeth chattered.
The chill had worked its way up my arms to my shoulders. Pretty soon, my core temperature would be affected. My legs felt stiff, not because they were tired, but simply because of the cold. I could keep them moving, but my steps were short and choppy. Given my stature and the gait that comes with it, that’s saying something. Maybe running an even higher cadence than I normally do would elevate my heart rate and help me warm up?
The third aid station (Dam) came and went. I didn’t stop at all. Even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to eat anything. My fingers no longer bent anywhere but at the knuckle where they meet the palm, turning my hands into spatulas. Even though the air was warming up, it was still cold enough that I was continuing to lose heat.
It’s supposed to get to 10 °C today. That’s perfect running weather. If you hang in there, you’ll be fine…eventually. You’ll reach your low point soon, probably sometime in the next hour.
That low point seemed to come shortly before we completed the first of our five 20-mile loops, because by the time we reached the start/finish aid station, I felt better. Maybe it was only because of a vague sense of completion. Two more runners had caught the three of us by that point.
The start/finish area had not only an aid station, but also a tent city for everyone’s crew. Both sides of the course were lined with canopy tents, some of which had impressive setups. Grills, multiple coolers, an entourage of a dozen or more supporters…often to support only one guy! The volunteers had acted surprised that morning when I showed up with a drop bag and asked where I could leave it. I suppose they expected me to show up with a moving truck and an army.
Upon arriving at the start/finish, everyone scattered in different directions, except for me. I got into my drop bag, determined to use my worthless hands to channel anything into my mouth. I hadn’t eaten or drank anything in 20 miles. If I didn’t put something down my gullet soon, I’d completely lose energy reserves at some point. My plan had originally been to skip one aid station on each of my first four laps, but now that I’d skipped each aid station on my first lap, the plan changed to stopping at all of them from now on.
It wasn’t until I tried eating that I realized my jaw was sore from all the involuntary chattering. I didn’t even know that could happen. It would be another three hours before I completed the next loop, and would be considerably warmer by then, but I left all my clothes on. I added a pair of sunglasses.
Only one other runner had a pit stop as short as mine, the guy who’d stayed in front for nearly the entire first loop, and we began the second loop together. Once again, he took the lead, but was a touch slower. It was only a few minutes before we could both tell I wanted to go faster. He kinda gave a shrug before remarking, “I just kinda wanted to be in the lead at some point.” He moved to the side of the trail and I took off on my own.
I spent the rest of the race alone.
Well, not entirely alone. It was now nearly 9:00 AM, and just about everyone had started the race by now. Where the first loop was three guys quietly plunging through the icy darkness, the second loop was brightly lit and crowded. The trail was full of runners, most of them eagerly starting on their adventure, and the sunshine made the world feel alive again. I was only beginning to physically warm up, but the atmosphere had changed and my spirit was lifted.
Between the first and second aid stations (aka Gate and Nature Center), there’s a 2.5-mile out-and-back on a very straight dirt road. Once I reached the turnaround, I started looking out for any of the guys that had been with me at the end of the first loop. I never spotted one for sure, but it was hard to tell. I’d never gotten a good look at anyone’s face, which is hard enough to do when you’re running either alongside or behind someone, and it’s doubly hard when it’s dark and they’re wearing a headlamp. I instead tried to look for the jackets they were wearing, but there was a good chance they’d ditched them.
I couldn’t be 2.5 miles ahead of anyone already…could I??
Halfway through the 2nd loop, I ditched my hat at the Nature Center aid station. I was finally able to stretch my legs and run with a graceful, efficient gait. My pace, which wasn’t bad in the first loop, picked up slightly.
Maybe the miserable conditions in the first loop were a good thing. If I felt great at the start, I probably would’ve gone out too fast.
Now able to better see in front of me and pick my line through the roots, they felt like a welcome challenge. The course was otherwise boring in places, so it was fun to almost make a game out of figuring out how to plan your steps through this tricky spot, and the next one, and the next.
I’ve never felt better after 40 miles than I did at the end of the second loop. My hands were fully functional once again. Still in most of the clothes I was wearing nearly six hours ago, I even felt a little warm. I took off the gloves and long-sleeve shirt, down to only a sleeveless shirt and a pair of compression shorts. The air was still only about 6 °C (43 °F), a little cool for that setup, but the temperature was still climbing. It’d be perfect in an hour or so.
Alright Rocky, the gloves are coming off!!
I’d finished the first lap in 2:51, then the second in 2:48. Slightly faster, even though I stopped at all four aid stations on the second loop and none on the first. It was now about 11:40 AM.
If I can finish this one in 2:50, then the next one in 3:00, I’d have 3:30 to run the last loop and still finish in under 15 hours.
15 hours had been the most optimistic “I’m not sure if I can do that” goal, and now it looked like a strong possibility. All I had to do was hold pace for one more loop, then keep the last two from being disasters. And…was it possible I could win???
3rd loop. 2:48. Only a few seconds slower than the previous loop. Parts of me were starting to feel tired and sore, like you do after 60 miles, but everything was working fine and I still felt good enough overall.
It’s 2:30 PM now. Finish this next loop in three hours and you’ll be back here at 5:30 PM and start the last loop in the daytime!
A three-hour 4th loop, followed by a 3:30 5th loop, would do the trick. That meant a 9:00/mile pace, then a 10:30/mile pace. To this point, my average pace had been 8:40/mile, and while you normally expect to slow down during an ultra, I’d just done 60 miles without slowing down at all. I began the 4th loop fully confident.
And that’s when things started to go downhill.
Before I even got to the Gate aid station, I tripped and fell. Fortunately, the surface was mostly dirt, so no real harm done. This was in stark contrast to Bandera, where the surface is mostly made of rocks and a fall is much more painful and potentially serious.
It hadn't even happened in any particularly difficult section; it was a flat area with a few roots, par for the course at best. I was probably getting tired and lazy. I got up, walked, counted 10-Mississippi aloud and still felt OK, then began jogging again. Called myself an idiot and resolved to keep a better eye on the roots from now on.
thht! WHUMP! “SHIT!!”
Less than a mile later, the exact same thing. I got up, walked, counted 10-Mississippi aloud and still felt OK, then began jogging again. Called myself an idiot and resolved to keep a better eye on the roots from now on.
Having failed to do #2 for the past 36 hours, my stomach was beginning to turn. When you persistently exercise for long periods of time, your body shuts down what it considers non-essential activity in order to conserve energy. That includes your lower GI. I had to stop and take care of business several times during the fourth loop. I was mostly angry at the fact that it was affecting my average pace.
If I could stop tripping over roots and take just one good dump, I’d be going a lot faster!
Anything can happen in an ultra. I would’ve tried eating less, but after skipping all aid stations for the first 20 miles, I knew I couldn’t afford to skip any more. After the fifth time, my stomach finally felt empty and I was running lean again.
Each time I ran the long out-and-back section, I kept looking out for other runners, trying to recognize any from the first loop. Never saw anyone that looked familiar. I had no way of knowing how far back 2nd place was, but it was probably more than 2.5 miles.
The trail was still teeming with other runners, and a growing percentage of them were becoming hikers. Some of them recognized me as I lapped them for a second time. Most interactions went like this:
Me: “Good afternoon!”
Them: “You’re killin’ it!”
Me: “Rock ‘n roll!”
One of them asked if I was already on my third loop.
“Oh, awesome! The fourth loop is the hardest.”
Well, that’s easy to say now…
The sun was still up when I finished the 4th loop, but not by much. The air was already feeling colder. I knew they weren’t necessary yet, but at the start/finish, I put the long-sleeve shirt and gloves back on. I’d feel warmer than necessary for now, but it would be better to start off warm once the temperature got back below freezing again.
Despite the setbacks, the 4th loop still came in under three hours.
3:30 and you got a sub-15! From here on out, any mile under ten minutes is a victory!
Considering my average pace was over a minute faster, that sounded easy!
The sun had barely set by the time I made it to Gate aid staton, but was still light enough to see. I grabbed my waist light out of my drop bag and strapped it back on. A volunteer came over while I was shoveling food in my mouth.
“Whatchu got there?”
Admittedly, what I eat during races looks pretty weird. I was eager to get going again, but took a few seconds to answer.
“I call it power oatmeal. It’s basically oatmeal, quinoa, nuts, berries, a couple scoops of sport drink, and beet powder, which makes it purple.”
“Ah, alright! So it’s kinda like a homemade Clif bar in a bowl.”
“...actually, yeah!” I hadn't thought of it that way before.
I was worried about tripping over roots again once it got dark, but maybe I had a heightened sense of danger and did a better job watching my step. I couldn’t charge through the tricky spots like I had earlier. Had to back off the pace when going uphill. Was still able to take advantage of the downhills, but not quite as efficiently as before. And my general pace wasn’t what it used to be.
That’s fine. Just turn in sub-10s and you got this. That’s a light jog at best. You got this.
My stomach decided it was time for round two. Four more pit stops during the 5th loop. The third one was substantial enough that I thought we were done, but guess whaaaat??
A few times during the last loop, it occurred to me that running 100 miles isn’t such a good idea.
Maybe I should “just” do 100ks from now on.
The metric system is superior to imperial units anyway.
No section of the Rocky Raccoon course is any harder than any other section, which is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because there’s never that one part that whoops your behind and ruins you for the rest of the race. It’s bad because there’s never a hill so steep you have to walk, so if you want to be competitive, you have to run the whole thing. So you do. And after 14+ hours of this, you start to wonder, “Why am I so tired? This whole course was easy and I’ve been able to run the whole thing,” without realizing that’s exactly why you’re tired.
That said, the last section of the course, between Dam aid station and the start/finish, feels the hardest. Mainly because it’s the longest. The mileage between aid stations goes 4-5-5-6, meaning they keep getting longer as you go.
The biggest mental hurdle, by far, comes 1.5 miles after Dam aid station, when you can see the start/finish across the lake, only about 200 m away as the crow flies, but you have 4.5 miles to go. I was tempted to swim for it. Then I remembered it was below freezing outside. Bad idea.
In the last few miles, I spent almost as much time checking my watch as I did looking where I was going.
I only need to run the next 3 miles at a 11:30 pace!
I only need to run the next 2.5 miles at a 12:00 pace!
I only need to run the next 2.2 miles at a 12:25 pace!
And so on.
Eventually, it was obvious; I could walk the last mile and break 15 hours. All I had to do was not hurt myself and finish this thing.
As I approached the finish line, the volunteers and spectators cheered, not even realizing this was my fifth lap. I still wasn’t positive that I’d won - maybe someone had passed me while I was in a port-o-potty.
“Did I just win?”
“Was that your fifth lap???”
“FIFTH LAP! YOU WON, MAN!!!”
I smiled. I hugged the guy nearest me. He was a photographer (turns out a good one at that). He hugged me back, then took pictures. I smiled bigger.
I might add, this was the same photographer with the famed “Back from the dead!” quote at Bandera. I related that story to him and told him how it was the final piece of my comeback that day, and I give him partial credit for my negative split in that race. I hope that made him feel good about himself. He deserves to.
I was handed a belt buckle and a handful of people congratulated me. It took minutes before I started shivering. A race volunteer named Chris asked what I needed, and we collaboratively came up with a plan to get me warm again. First priority was going to my car, parked nearby, and changing into comfy warm clothes. As one might imagine, tight running clothes are hard to peel off after they’ve been stuck to you for 15 hours. Combine that with stiff, sore legs and semi-functioning cold hands and it took about 20 minutes to change clothes in my small car.
I limped back over to the aid station, where hot food was being served by the volunteers. One of them immediately handed me a hot chocolate. I didn’t even have to ask.
“Yeah? What you need?”
“...Can I come in the tent and sit next to the space heater?”
My goodness did that feel good! An external source of heat, for the first time since leaving the hotel room 16 hours ago!
At this point, I had burned enough calories (10,245 according to my watch) that I was out of literal energy and no longer had the ability to generate my own body heat. That was happening to basically everyone at this point, and it was below freezing outside. Most people who do 100-milers finish in more than 24 hours, which meant they’d be going all the way through the night, finishing sometime after sunrise tomorrow. Of the 336 people who began the race, 138 of them (41%) didn’t finish. Most of them dropped out overnight. The cold is most likely a big reason why.
I waited until I felt warm before getting up to leave. But only after downing a cup of ramen, a cheese quesadilla, a piece of French toast, and some bacon. These guys know what we really want.
I still had to drive around the park to pick up my bags at the other aid stations, one of which was about a half-km hike from the nearest parking. Somehow, that hike felt harder than any of the running I’d already done.
I thought I was done with this crap…
By the time I made it there, I was cold again. I grabbed my bag, then found a volunteer.
“Um, I just finished and I’m only here to pick up my drop bag, but…can I come in and sit next to the heater before I walk back to the car?”
“Of course!! C’mon in!”
It’s almost like these people who come out to brave the cold for hours - and aren’t paid to do it - are nice people. Ate a grilled PBJ before leaving. Anything warm felt great. Drove to the next aid station. Repeat. Chicken noodle soup this time.
The plan was to drive home after the race and sleep in my own bed, but that now sounded like a bad idea. The entire drive would be made in the dark, mostly on roads with no lights, in sub-freezing conditions. I was exhausted, shivering whenever I wasn’t within spitting distance of a space heater, and vision in my left eye had been blurry since the 4th loop. I went back to the same hotel, where they luckily had a vacancy. I told them I won and they took $10 off the price.
A handful of the other runners were sponsored athletes, and this short anemic math teacher went out and smoked 'em. Maybe I need to reach out to potential sponsors. After winning my first 100-miler, I considered making it my one-and-only race of that distance and "retiring undefeated". Now I'm 2-for-2.
Emily successfully finished her first 100-miler in a time of 29:25:28. She described both the race and the following few days as “highly emotional”, including crying over the deliciousness of a McDouble and fries. Can you imagine if she'd gone to Whataburger?
Rick, unfortunately, DNF-ed. His words: “Disappointing but no regrets. Let’s apply some lessons and move on to the next challenge.”
Read about Coyote's adventure with his father in Central Texas. Music, food, wheels, family, all the finer things in life.