Friday 13 February 2015

Rocky Raccoon 50 - Weeks of Anxiety Undone in Just a Few Hours

Nic ran the Rocky Raccoon 50 the weekend after my hundred.  To say that the hardest part was getting to the starting line doesn't doesn't really do justice to the pre-race nerves.  Read her take on the race and run-in to it below.

As is often the case, I entered Rocky Raccoon 50 after a few glasses of wine (or I should say, I allowed Kurt to enter me).  I had toyed with the idea, since we'd be in Texas anyway, and I thought it might give me some good motivation to train consistently through the winter months.  The wine made me brave - or stupid - and before I knew it I had an email from Tejas Trails confirming my entry.

2014 wasn't the best running year I've ever had.  I managed a total of one race race all year long, the Cheltenham Circular Marathon, a slow but lovely plod in the searing heat, after the most minimal of training.  I've been running regularly, but with no consistency.  Surely a 50 miler in early 2015 would focus my mind.  Kurt did me a training plan, and I attempted to follow it.  This went ok for a while, and I managed a couple of really enjoyable long runs.  Then a combination of a cold, a foot injury and a packed work schedule put various flies in the ointment.  Christmas came and went, and still I had only managed three long runs (none more than 20 miles).  Time was running out to get those miles in, so I had to focus on quality back-to-back runs, managing 40 miles in 5 days in early January.  Then - another blooming cold and cough and another two weeks off.

We arrived in Texas two weeks before my race.  I was seriously lacking in confidence, but Coach Kurt kept telling me that I could build into Rocky by doing lots of miles in the first week of our holiday, tapering in the second, and could still get round intact.  I did not believe him!  Especially when running felt so awful.  I was struggling badly with tightness and pain in my hamstring and quad in my right leg, and my chest felt tight each time I pushed myself.  My energy levels were poor and my running self-esteem was non-existent.  But I did manage to run around 38 miles that week.  It's rather lovely not to have to fit work into a week of running.  My final run of the week was a 12 mile recce in Huntsville State Park itself, while Kurt did the packet pickup and a bit of chatting prior to his race.  It was a beautiful afternoon in the park, with the lake glistening in the sunlight and the birds singing in the woods.  The route was a bit hillier than I remembered it being though, so those seeds of doubt didn't stop growing.

Lake Raven in the late afternoon sun.

Easy running in a beautiful location.

I'd like to say that crewing Kurt in his 100 miler provided me with inspiration for my race.  In some ways it did, as being around ultrarunners and crew is always uplifting and awe-inspiring.  But standing at the finish line at 4am, seeing runners in various states of disrepair make their way out for their 4th and 5th laps, exhausted and in pain - well, that just scared me.  What if I was in that kind of state after the halfway mark?  Seeing Kurt's feet and bruises after his race made me feel sick with fear.  His training for the 100 had been fabulous; he was way better prepared than me and yet he was a bit of a mess for a few days.  I didn't want to be finishing in really bad shape and I was fearful that I would, if I finished atall.  I had an emotional couple of days in the week following, and came very close indeed to pulling out of RR50.  I simply did not feel well-enough prepared and was anxious that I was going to spend the day punishing myself, while I should be enjoying myself - after all, I'm on holiday!!!  A long chat with Coach Kurt helped me figure some stuff out.  I didn't want to DNS - that would be worse than a DNF.  The worst that could happen was that I could have a go.  I felt confident that I could complete one lap (each lap is 16.7 miles) and get around a second, which would have me completing an ultra-distance, and if I was too knackered to start a third, that was ok.  Mentally letting myself off the hook put me in a new and much happier frame of mind.

Amazingly, as we arrived in Huntsville on Friday afternoon, stopping for lunch at the excellent Five Loaves Deli again, I actually began to feel excitement, where before there had only been anxiety.  I was feeling relaxed and smiley as I picked up my race packet and listened to the race briefing.  We headed back to the Days Inn in Conroe, about 20 mins south of the state park, where I got all my kit and food ready for the next day.  Crackerbarrel for dinner, then we were in bed by 10.  I slept ok, and by 5am we were back at the state park, raring to go!  I was no longer feeling negative, but instead looking forward to running.  I'd posted a Facebook status before going to bed, telling anyone who was interested that I needed a bit of luck to finish, but I was going to try to be positive and have a go - by the time I got up in the morning, there were so many wonderful uplifting messages on my page, I was quite inspired.

It was really rather chilly (about 3 degrees celsius) at the start, which made kit choice a little challenging, especially as temperatures were forecast to get into the low 20s later, with plenty of sunshine.  Luckily, my lovely father in law had loaned me some arm-warmers, which worked really well - I started the race in shorts, t-shirt, buff on my head and around my neck, and the nice warm arm-warmers.

The one piece of kit that let me down was my Garmin.  It's been playing up for a while, with the screen blanking from time to time, but generally had been working fine all of the week before.  Frustratingly, as I turned it on at the start line, the display had more or less disappeared.  I only wanted it to make sure I wasn't starting off too fast, as it's so very easy to do.  Oh well, I'd just have to use my judgement.  So I started near the back, and off we went.  The darkness, rootiness of the course and congestion of other runners made it easy to keep the pace really easy.  The other runners around me were happy, friendly and chatty, although I really didn't want to run with anyone in particular - it was important to me to run my own pace and not get caught up with anyone else.  So I let the conversation float over my head, just enjoying listening and joining in with the occasional comment.  In no time atall, the first checkpoint came, I ditched my arm-warmers and Kurt gave me breakfast - a bag of cheese and crackers.  The checkpoints in this race are every 3-4 miles, which is great.  I'd originally planned a run-walk strategy, based on running to the CPs then walking for a few minutes.  But on advice from Coach Kurt, and after my recce where I realised the course wasn't flat, my tactic became to jog on the flat, coast the downhills (mind the tree roots!!) and walk and eat on the uphills.  So I duly stuffed my face with pepperjack cheese as I walked the long drag uphill after the first CP.

Lap one was easy.  The forest was cool, shrouded in mist.  It was so beautiful in places, I was sad not to have my phone with me to snap a few photos.  I found it easy to tap out an easy rhythm which felt very sustainable.  I was enjoying eating lots of cheese, some crackers and the oreos at the checkpoints.  I ate far more than I ever have in the early stages of a race, which I think helped me a great deal later.  Kurt was there to greet me at the Park Road CP (~13miles) and to tell me that I was moving at a really good pace, but not too fast.  He looked happy, I felt great and the sun was beginning to shine.  I arrived at the start/finish 3 hours 45 mins after I started.  Jerry had arrived - I heard him clanging his cowbells before I saw him, which made me smile broadly.  Every time I heard them all day, it just made me smile and laugh.  I changed my t-shirt into a vest, drank some fizzy water and ate some oreos, and left for lap 2 still smiling, and fully expecting to slow down significantly.

All smiles after 20 miles.
Lap two continued in much the same vein as lap one.  I tapped out my rhythm and kept on moving comfortably.  I'd moved from cheese and crackers to Clif Builder Bars (mint chocolate) which I find quite yummy, but by ~23 miles, I was starting to feel a bit nauseous.  Kurt had stocked my waist pack with water bottles filled with GU electrolyte stuff, which I found surprisingly palatable.   It was getting a bit warm by now, as the early mist had well and truly burnt off.  I made sure to have some salt tabs at the DamNation CP.  There was a small section of the trail where there was no tree cover, alongside the lake - I'd been running for around 5-6 hours and it was late morning - it was HOT!  Thankfully it wasn't a long stretch before being blissfully among the trees again.  I got passed by the winner at this point - wow, he was moving so fast, with less than 10 miles to go and I still had a lap and a half to go!  I was feeling a little bit ropey and had no idea what to eat.  I knew I had to keep eating.  I was forcing down small bites of builders bar.  The CP at DamNation, which was 6miles and 8.7mi into the lap had a huge array of food on offer - even bacon and pancakes on the first lap! - and I looked at it for inspiration before pouncing on the pickles.  I've never eaten pickles while running before, but I think I'm now a convert.  I saw them, and had to eat them, then wanted them all the rest of the day.  They tasted amazing - salty, sour and palate cleansing - goodbye nausea!  I carried on to Park Road feeling good again, with Kurt there to meet me and inform me that I was still running a good pace.  Park Road is 4 miles from the start finish area, and the section of trail between the this CP and the start/finish is lovely - twisty, turny, undulating and rooty.  For some reason, 'Don't Stop Me Now' by Queen came into my head, and I started singing out loud (there was no one around). I had such a big smile on my face as I realised that I was going to be able to start a third lap, and 50 miles began to feel like a reality.  I finished lap 2 in 3 hours 55 mins.

Pickles and a quick chat about food and then Coach Kurt kicked me straight out onto lap 3.
I still felt strong, had no injury problems and continued to be able to move along freely and comfortably.  Foodwise, I was struggling a little, but I'd eaten so much in the first lap, I was reaping the benefits, and as long as I topped up with some gels and shot bloks, my energy levels were good.  As I came through the out-and-back part of the course after the DamNation CP, having run 42 miles, I counted at least 20 people behind me - what a shocker!  I was getting a bit tired now, and I was having to tell myself to keep running.  I think my brain was more tired than my legs, as when I was running, my pace was still perfectly steady and comfortable.  Still, I couldn't stop smiling - apart from when I had to shout at myself - DO NOT FALL DOWN!!  Kurt, Jerry and Marilane were all waiting for me at the last CP, which was so lovely - those cowbells again!  The last four miles were hard, mostly because it was the only part of the race where I had no company.  So much of this route is two-way, so you constantly get to see and encourage (and get encouragement from) the faster runners.  But of course, they had all finished, so I was on my own.  I talked to myself a lot in those last four miles!  I did get a little tearful knowing that I had almost done it, when I really didn't think I could, but those tearful feelings turned to pure joy and elation when I crossed the last road crossing into the finishing straight.  The cowbells again!!  I put my foot down and finished strongly, there was plenty left in the tank!  I had such a big grin on my face - if only that feeling could be bottled!  I finished my third lap in almost the same time as my second, with a finishing time of 11hours 33mins, and more than 90 people behind me or dropped out.  At the start, I would have been utterly delighted to have believed I could have finished in less than 13 hours - I just wanted to make sure I could finish in time to enjoy dinner and margaritas with friends and family.  I am still shocked at the time - Coach Kurt has joked that maybe I've found my distance.

The only person I know who didn't think I'd get here when we left the UK...
Overall, this was a day where simply everything went right.  I got my pacing, nutrition, clothing, fluids all just right.  My excellent crew helped greatly, of course.  I'm incredibly proud of myself for beating my demons and managing to run positively and happily.  And I'm so grateful to all my friends and family who were rooting for me - knowing they were there supporting me and encouraging me really helped to keep me going.

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