Friday 7 February 2014

Rocky Raccoon 100

My first DNF.  It hurts.  I've never before had that joyless feeling of not having reached the finish line.  Plenty of times, I've had that horrible feeling of having stupidly pushed to the line, lost months or years of training, and wished I'd had the sense to stop.  Now, a few days later, I vacillate between patting myself on the back for not ruining 2014 with stubbornness and wondering just how bad it would have been if I'd carried on.  It's likely that I physically could have finished.  It's unlikely that I would have enjoyed the aftermath. We'll never know about the ifs, buts, and maybes of not dropping out, but I'm learning quickly about whether my perceived problems were actual.

Rocky Raccoon 100 was due to be my escape from the midwinter blues.  Texas in February, with  weather shifts that can cover the total annual temperature range of the UK, held out the promise of some great days for being outdoors.  Whether race day would be one of those days was uncertain, but I felt sure that I would get some sunshine at some point in the trip.  So, fresh from my fortuitous run at Endure 24, I signed up for a chance to race in one of the biggest 100-milers in the US and hoped for some nice cool winter sunshine.  Not long after paying for the flights, I promptly turned my ankle one too many times to turn my training plan from "let's nail this 100" into "get fit to start and hope for a good day".

With my long runs consisting of a 27mi hilly road run and a 32mi trail beasting in November and December, and not much back-to-back running at all, I left for Huntsville certain in the knowledge that I could survive the full race, and if I were both smart and lucky, I could run reasonably well.  I also knew that, if the weekend's forecast of 22C and 97% humidity was accurate, I would probably end up the consistency of a Camembert left out in the sun. I threw a couple of small handheld bottles in the suitcase at the last minute, and we were off to find out what a day in the care of Tejas Trails would bring.

Soft, pine-needle covering makes for comfy running.

The pre-race festivities included spending a bit of time on the trail on Thursday, and a chance to meet some of the elite runners on Friday.  Both confirmed my suspicions about the route - keep an eye on the ground and you shouldn't spend too much time lying on it, lose concentration, and the roots will have your toes.  Course record holder, Ian Sharman, advised that the course is completely runnable (for him, anyway), and not too treacherous unless you're used to running on the roads.

A little rooty, but not treacherous

Meet & Eat w/ the Elite on Friday - Does finishing with the same result mean I'm elite? (Um, no). Gary Gellin (DNF), Pam Smith DNF), Ian Sharman (2nd), Mark (not racing), Connie Gardner (DNF), Ryan Ghelfi (DNF), David James (DNF), Robert Goyen (DNF), Me (DNF)

After a slightly disturbed sleep (I somehow accidentally set the hotel alarm clock to go off at midnight...), I dragged myself out of bed at 3:45 to try to get some food in to help the early laps go smoothly.  We got to the park just after 5:00, and the 20 minute queue to pay for entry gave me time to shed my warm clothes in preparation for the race.  It was already 16C, so I was pretty comfortable in my vest, with a light jacket for the final wait for the start.

Pre-race happy runner. I can't remember the last time I was this warm in the dark!

Before I had time to get particularly nervous, we were off.  I started about half way down the pack, to make sure I eased into the run.  With nearly 500 starters, the first mile was pretty congested, taking 14 minutes on some very gentle trails as we jogged and walked our way along the narrow trail.  I duly caught a root and practiced my forward rolling technique on the soft pine needles - the joy of moving slowly in the dark without much visibility of the ground in front of you.  No damage done, I took a bit more care to find some open trail when opportunities arose during the second mile. Conscious that I'd told Nic to give me a hard time if I arrived at the Nature Center aid station (~5K) under 35 minutes, I kept the pace easy and enjoyed chatting away with other runners and duly arrived at ~39 minutes.

Having managed not to blow it in the first 5K, and with the trails opening at last and dawn allowing me to ditch the head torch, I enjoyed the chance to run a bit with easy visibility and the coolest weather I would have available until after sunset.  I found myself running with a young woman named Tina, and we chatted our way out to Dam Nation (~10K) and most of the way through the loop back to Dam Nation before I decided that I was already getting too hot to keep running at the ~11min/mi pace we had been holding.  So, I dropped back, started walking a bit more, and accepted that the day would be mostly about managing my temperature in the hot and muggy conditions.  Lap 1 finished at ~3:40, with me already tired of the peanut butter sandwiches and pretzels I'd been eating up to that point.  I was a bit surprised, since PB&J has been a constant staple in my diet for nearly 40 years, and I almost never turn down a pretzel.

At Dogwood, I picked up my hat to shield my pate from the sun, which looked like it might break through, and also to hold cool water on my head.  Only 20mi in, and I was already pouring water down my back and on my head to keep cool.  As I started lap 2, I was pulled on by thoughts of trading my Salomon race vest for some handhelds and enjoying the cold chocolate milk and turkey & mustard wraps waiting for me at Nature Center.  When I got there, Mom & Dad had arrived to help Nic crew for the day.

Mom had made a sign to help cheer me on.

Happy to have the chance for a bit more air on my body.

Taking off my now-drenched pack gave me the opportunity to greet Mom with a disgustingly sweaty hug, and I took a few minutes to visit while I drank the delightfully cold milk.  I planned to eat the wrap on the move, filled my pockets with food, and took my last-minute handhelds towards Dam Nation and the end of marathon 1.  The first bite into the wrap told me that the deli turkey I'd picked up was nothing like the delicious, light, meaty turkey I normally buy in the UK.  I'd been duped into selecting turkey that tasted more like licking salt off an old pork scratching.  I'm not sure how someone can make a simple slice of turkey taste so bad, especially to someone who should be relishing anything salty based on the sweat loss during the first lap, but I spat the first bite into the bushes and washed my mouth out to get rid of the taste.  On my next walking break, I forced down the rest of the wrap, knowing that the fuel value far outweighed the unpleasant taste, and continued on to complete my first marathon of the day in just under 5 hours.

The pace was steady, and not dissimilar from what I'd done at Endure in June.  This second Dam Nation loop was a bit more sedate than the first, but I was already getting very hot.  I poured more water on to try to keep cool, but it wasn't evaporating, so it really didn't do me any good.  The water gave out with about a mile to go back to the aid station, but at least there was a bit of a breeze along the dam.  I was in pretty good spirits, chatting with various runners as we leapfrogged our way along the trail.  By this time, I was grabbing salt tablets at each station, and had dropped back to my TORQ bars as a comfortable food source.  At Park Road (~36mi), Dad was waiting for me - unexpected and welcome.  I gave him my hat, which was superfluous as the clouds rolled in, and let him know I was suffering a bit with the heat and asked him to have my TORQ Energy ready at Nature Center.  He did one better, and when I got to Dogwood, finishing the lap at 8 hours, Nic was there with my lap 3 bag a station early.  We had a brief chat, I took the Stick to my left hamstring, and I started out running comfortably for what felt like it would be a 5hr third loop.

43mi in, slightly melting, but still having fun.

The gentle jog-walk to Nature Center took the 50 minutes I'd expected, and I was still moving well, if not quickly.   I was, however, having to remind myself to stand upright - the core was falling to pieces far much earlier than normal.  I confirmed with my awesome crew that they would give me my head torch at Park Road, where it would be getting dark, gave Mom another sweaty hug, and carried on.

At some point after Dam Nation, the wheels fell off.  By half way, lifting my legs was a laughable exercise in futility.  I was baked.  I could feel the lack of training coming into play.  I just didn't have the strength to move my legs as well as I needed to. I was popping gels, eating TORQ bars, and felt in pretty good spirits.  My legs, however, had very little range of motion.  I finished the 3rd Dam Nation loop at 11 hours, my second marathon of the day taking 6 hours.  The lack of training was telling, as I dropped steadily into a 3mph pace.  At this stage, I was nearly certain I would not be coming back on a 4th lap.

On the way to Park Road, I got talking to Melissa from New York, who was hobbling along as fast as her ravaged ITB would let her.  We discussed the merits, or lack, of the dreaded DNF, and her view was very simple - I shouldn't quit.  I popped off the trail for a short break and then spent the next 3 miles trying to catch her.  Walking quickly wasn't working, and jogging/shuffling wasn't much faster.  So, I tried running.  I could, for very short bursts, move at something approaching a running motion.  I did not, however, manage to catch up until she stopped at Park Road (she finished in 26hrs).

Having considered the DNF for the best part of 2 hours, my mind was made up when I reached Park Road at 12hr, with a likely 13.5hr lap 3 finish time ahead of me.  I realized, shortly after the half way marker, that I felt immobile, not injured.  The prospect of spending the best part of the next 40+ miles walking didn't really excite my sense of adventure.  I had to decide whether to walk and risk the return to fitness I'd achieved to finish, or to stop at the next opportunity and chalk the race up as a huge leap forward in my training.  I opted for the conservative approach and called it a day.

My post-race massage, which I'd hoped would focus on my dodgy ankle, turned up a "small" knot in my back that needed attention more - it started around halfway up my back and finished at the top of my spine.  My shoulders and arms were pretty much locked up tight.  It was obvious that my core had had to sort out the untrained upper body and the swinging handheld weights, which took away from its normal duty of keeping me upright and running.  The risk of keeping cool by using handhelds didn't really pay off, since I was knackering myself by using muscles that are usually just passengers.

So, was a DNF the right call?  From the "but I could have finished" viewpoint, I was easily on target for a finish at around 27hrs.  A walk/shuffle with some long food stops to try to get it back together enough for more running in the final lap was a viable option, so I chucked away the chance to get another 100mi finish. From a long-term point of view, the DNF was absolutely the right way to go.  The ankle that blighted much of the second half of 2013 actually feels a bit better than it did before the race.  The hamstring problem I've had for over a year never came into play, and also seems to have benefited from the long, slow, relatively flat running.  In effect, by not pushing too far into the "it's a race, so leave everything on the trail" mentality, I managed to get the 12hr training run I needed in December but had been too unfit to manage.  A few stats back up the decision: I was ~20min slower than my Endure 24 pace for each of the 1st 2 laps, and on target for an optimistic 1hr20 slower for the 3rd lap.  The running had stopped 20mi too early.  In the end, though, it all came down to the sudden realization that, even though I was completely baked, I didn't feel like I was running on an injured ankle for the first time since last May, and I decided to build on that rather than risk it for a buckle.  The buckle will be there in 2015, and now I feel like I've got a shot at actually getting fit enough to run a hundred the way I want to.  Joe & Joyce put on a great event, and, having enjoyed being looked after by a great group of volunteers, I'm pretty sure we'll be back to try again next year.

1 comment:

  1. Never easy making those decisions, but from the other race reports I've seen it was tough conditions weather wise to be running in.