Rocky Raccoon 100 Race Report

February 25, 2014

Considering how long it takes to run 100 miles, it’s okay that it took me more than 3 weeks to write a race report, right?

Right???

Rocky Raccoon 100

Anyways, back at the start of February, I traveled down to Huntsville, TX to run the Rocky Raccoon 100. After running my first 100 miler here in Alaska last summer at a race that was mostly self-supported with only 2 aid stations, I was looking forward to running a fully-supported ultra where I wouldn’t need to carry much with me. Rocky Raccoon is also a relatively flat course, with a total of about 5,000 feet of elevation gain over 100 miles.

I was also excited to run a relatively high-profile 100 miler where I would be running “with” some of the elites of our sport. Rocky Raccoon is part of the Montrail Ultra Cup, meaning that the top 3 men and women win entry into Western States. The race was also the 2014 USATF 100 Mile Trail Championship, so the combination of the two really brought out some of the big guns. The elite field included recent Grand Slam record-setting Ian Sharman (who also holds the Rocky Raccoon course record of 12:44:33), and #1 & 2 female ultrarunners of the year Michele Yates and Pam Smith.

Since I was traveling all the way from Alaska, I arrived in Texas on Thursday to give myself a little extra time to get over the jet lag and adjust to the 3 hour time difference. We spent Thursday playing tourist around Houston before heading to Huntsville Friday afternoon in time for the race briefing and packet pickup.

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Race director Joe Prusaitis giving the race briefing Friday night.

Justin Bieber Drop Bag

Best. Drop bag. Ever.

The Rocky Raccoon course is 5 20 mile loops through Huntsville State Park. Aside from the start/finish area, there are 3 aid stations along each loop, one of which (Damnation) you visit twice, and can also have a drop bag there, which I did. With aid stations at such regular intervals (the furthest between them being 6 miles), I ran with one 20 oz bottle in a waist pack that also had a pocket for a bit of food, and one 20 oz handheld. I left 2 spare bottles with my crew so that they could prefill them for me with Tailwind and quickly switch them out at the end of each loop.

I’ll divide up the rest of my race report by loop, and then give my overall impressions of the race at the end.

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Ready to get this party started!

Loop 1

The race started bright and early at 6am Saturday morning. With nearly 500 runners plus crew, pacers, etc., there were concerns about the parking situation, so we arrived at Huntsville State Park shortly after 4am. After dropping off my drop bag near the start/finish area, I went back to the car to eat a bit of breakfast and get some coffee in me while I waited for the race to start.

About 5:45, I headed over to the start area. I was in no hurry, so I slipped in near the back of the pack. I was far enough back that I never heard a gun go off or anything like that, people just started cheering and moving forward. With nearly 500 runners, it was probably 2 miles before the crowd really spread out and I could comfortably run. It was still dark out for about the first hour so I was running with my headlamp, but I was able to ditch that at the Damnation aid station about 6 miles in, where I had a drop bag waiting. After leaving Damnation, you head out on a 6 mile loop before coming back through Damnation a 2nd time.

I felt really good all through the first loop. The day started in the low 60′s, which wasn’t bad, but the humidity was around 93%, which is something I’m just not used to coming from Alaska, where it’s typically very dry, especially in the winter. I was sweating a lot and trying to keep up with my fluids as best I could. My plan was to try and go through the first loop in around 4 hours, then add about 15 minutes for each subsequent loop. My first loop ended up being a little fast, about 3:53, but I still felt great and didn’t think I was pushing too hard too early, so it didn’t worry me much.

Loop 2

Going into this race, I was a bit worried about the potential monotony of a looped course. I actually found a certain comfort in getting to know the course and being able to expect what I had coming up in each section. I mentally broke the course down into the sections between each aid station. It was interesting how quickly I came to love and loathe different sections of the course.

It’s funny that in the midst of a 100 mile race, how long the 6 mile Damnation loop started to feel. It was during the Damnation loop on the 2nd lap that I felt my first low. The humidity was getting to me, I obviously hadn’t been drinking enough, and was starting to feel a little loopy. I ended up falling twice in this section, tripping on the roots that Rocky Raccoon is famous for. I gave myself a quick pep talk, knowing that if I did that too many more times, I could end up hurting myself badly enough to end my race prematurely. The good news is that I never fell again the entire race. The bad news is that my stomach was starting to turn, and I was having trouble taking in any food or fluids, which is exactly what I needed at that point.

By the time I reached Park Road, the last aid station of each loop, I was feeling pretty crappy and my left calf was cramping badly. As soon as I came into the aid station, the awesome volunteers were all over me. One got behind me and started rolling out my calf with The Stick, while another brought me salted potatoes and Endurolytes. Before leaving, another volunteer poured a bunch of cold water over my head and the back of my neck. I headed back out to finish the loop feeling like a new man!

I may have finished this loop feeling much better, but my slump had slowed me down much more than planned – I finished the 2nd loop in 4:46.

Loop 3

There’s not a whole lot about the 3rd loop that really sticks out in my mind at this point. After passing through the Damnation aid station for the 2nd time (52 miles into the race), I knew it would be getting dark soon, so I pulled my headlamp back out of my drop bag, and prepared for running through the night.

Overall I was feeling much better than the last lap, eating regularly at the aid stations and drinking plenty. But the fatigue was really starting to settle into my legs, and I was slowing down quite a bit. Many of the smaller hills that I had been running on the first 2 laps, I found myself walking now. The 3rd loop took me 5:15.

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Getting ready to head out on my 4th lap. I really didn’t feel as bad as I look, but this photo makes me laugh. Plus, you can see that I spilled my soup all over my hand. I’m classy like that after 60 miles.

Loop 4

Many of the race reports I read from previous years said the same thing – the 4th loop is the hardest, at least mentally. You’re getting deep into the race, running through the night, and you know that you’ve still got one more loop to go. The Damnation loop felt especially long this time around.

There is actually quite a bit of sand along parts of the course, and by this point enough of it had gotten into my shoes that it was starting to bother my feet. I had packed extra socks in my drop bag, so when I came back through Damnation I stopped for a quick change. It felt great to get some fresh socks on my feet, and I was good to go for the rest of the race.

Even with a headlamp, the darkness of night really slowed me down. It just sort of sucked the energy out of me, and made it that much harder to spot roots, causing me to slow down to find my footing. I finished the 4th loop in 5:41 – way behind my projected pace at this point, but still in good spirits heading into my final loop.

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Excited to be heading out for my last lap! And looking much better than that last photo :)

Loop 5

In many ways, the 5th loop felt like a victory lap. With each section of the course that I passed through, I knew it was for the last time. The last Damnation loop was particularly satisfying. This loop was nearly all in the dark, so I was still moving fairly slowly. Every time I stopped at an aid station, no matter how briefly, my legs stiffened and it was difficult to get moving again. That being said, I was still moving better than most others I saw during my last loop. It looked like most of them had resolved themselves to walking the rest of the race, that being the most energy they could muster up at this point. I didn’t keep count, but I passed quite a few runners on this loop.

Finally, when I was about 2 miles from the finish, it was light enough out that I could turn my headlamp off. At almost the same time, the sky opened up and rain began to pour. It was in this moment that I found a reserve of energy I didn’t know I had, and began running the fastest that I had the entire race – I was ready to be done. I pushed hard those last 2 miles, crossing the finish line in what felt like an all-out sprint, but in reality was probably closer to 9 minute miles. I was completely soaked and it was quite cold (in the high 30′s or low 40′s), so I didn’t hang around the finish line for long. I shook hands with the race director, thanked him for an outstanding race, and received my hard-earned belt buckle.

I was done. I had run 100 miles for the second time. This time around I had done it in 25:32, a whopping 10 minutes faster than my first 100 miler. I finished 122nd out of 280 finishers. The heat and humidity claimed many victims this year, resulting in a 58% finisher rate, the lowest ever in the race’s 22 years.

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Finishing in the pouring rain.

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And…DONE!

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My hard-earned award.

Overall Impressions of the Race, Volunteers, etc.

I can’t say enough good things about how well organized of a race this is. The husband-wife race directing team of Joe and Joyce Prusaitis have this thing down to a science. The aid stations are well stocked, and the army of volunteers was awesome.

The moment you stepped into an aid station, there were several volunteers immediately greeting you and asking what they could get for you, offering to refill your bottles, etc. They were dedicated to helping us reach that finish line, and did it with a smile on their face. They made great food all night long, including what quickly became my new favorite – salted potatoes – as well as hot soup, quesadillas, pancakes and even bacon. They were never out of anything I wanted, and always went the extra mile to make sure you had enough of everything before hitting the trail again. I did my best to limit my time in the aid stations, and for the most part I think I did a pretty good job of this, but I could see how you could easily get sucked into spending too much time there.

I would definitely recommend this race to others – it would be a great first 100 miler. I’ll admit that it’s an “easier” course, as far as 100 milers go, but you still have to respect the distance. There is no such thing as an “easy” 100 miler.

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It looks like I’ll be continuing my recent tradition of packing multiple race reports into a single post. With much of the rest of the country caught up in the so-called “polar vortex“, we’ve actually had pretty warm weather here in Alaska over the past month or so. With Rocky Raccoon 100 just over 2 weeks away, I’ve recently done 2 longer races as part of my final build-up in training for my 2nd 100 miler.

Willow Winter Solstice Marathon (December 21)

I ran this same race last year when it was -22F at the start, dropping to -30F during the race. This year, the weather was much warmer (mid-20′s), but instead we were greeted by about 5 inches of fresh snow.

I think I would have preferred it being -30…

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Before the race with my cousin Sarah and her friend Kristine.

The race is run on snowmachine and dogsledding trails around the Willow area. The race organizers did their best to pack down the trail by having snowmachines out on the course before and during the race. Unfortunately it didn’t help much, and we were left to run through what was aptly described as “mashed potatoes”. I’ve never run through sand before, but others said this was very similar. All I know is that it was a tough slog. Every step was difficult, and even though I could tell I was working much harder than normal, my pace was quite slow.

I took it easy in the beginning and started out near the back of the pack. Around mile 9 or 10, I started catching up to some of the people who had started out too quickly. By the time I reached the turnaround at mile 14 (making this a 28 mile marathon!), I think I had passed 3 or 4 other runners. After turning around and heading back towards the finish, I managed to pass several others. At one point, I realized I was actually in 4th place (granted, there were only ??? runners total). However, it was me that had pushed too hard this time, and 3 runners passed me back before reaching the finish line in 5:51 – by far my slowest (and most difficult) marathon to date.

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Exhausted and happy to be done!

Frosty Bottom 50 Miler (January 4)

2 weeks later, after having been well fed and rested over Christmas and New Years, I ran the Frosty Bottom 50 miler. This race was exactly 4 weeks out from Rocky Raccoon 100, so I figured it was perfect timing for one last long training run.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that while this race is billed as a 50 miler, in reality it measured only about 43 miles on my Garmin. I knew this going in, as I had run the “25 mile” version of this race 2 years ago.

This is a multi-sport race, which is pretty common in Alaska winter races. This means that you can bike, ski or run in either of the 25 or 50 mile distances. The race is put on by a local bike shop, so it is largely a bike race. That, and this year all of the race proceeds went to a local biker who was badly injured last fall. There were 23 runners for the 25 miler, and 10 of us for the 50 miler.

The race starts at Kincaid Park, follows the Coastal Trail until it meets up with the Chester Creek Trail at Westchester Lagoon. It follows that trail until it meets up with the trails in Bicentennial Park, with the 25 mile race ending at Hilltop Ski area. The 50 milers loop around and go all the way back to Kincaid.

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All smiles at the halfway point!

The first few miles of the race, the snow on the trail was very soft and punchy, and I was beginning to have flashbacks of the Willow marathon. Within 3-4 miles though, we reached more regularly used trail where the snow was better packed down, and it was much easier going from there. Through the first half of the race, I ended up running with someone probably 75% of the time, and the miles ticked by pretty quickly. Once I reached the turnaround point and there were only 10 of us left running the 50 miler, things quickly changed and I ran the whole way back to Kincaid without even seeing any of the other runners. When I finished in 8:31, there were just 2 guys with a clipboard recording times at the finish line. I had finished about 15 minutes after the previous runner, and I came to find out later that the closest person behind me was about an hour and a half back.

Overall I felt good during this race. There was a small aid station at the turnaround where I was able to refill my water, but otherwise it was essentially self-supported. I ate well all day, and never really had any issues with my stomach. That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to do one more long run like this before Rocky Raccoon, it was one more chance to practice my hydration and fueling strategies. With these long ultras, they are almost as much an eating and drinking competition as they are a running one. During a marathon, you can get by for 3-4 hours on a couple gels. But for these longer ultras, that type of a strategy simply won’t cut it (at least not for me). After the first couple of hours, I need to get some real food in me, and ideally aim for 200-300 calories an hour.

Final Prep for Rocky Raccoon

Rocky Raccoon is coming up fast on February 1, just over 2 weeks away. I did my last long training run this past weekend, and as they say “the hay is in the barn” in terms of my training. There’s not much I can do at this point to make myself any stronger or more ready for race day. My taper started this week, and from here until race day, it’s all about keeping my legs sharp, getting as much rest as I can, and not allowing myself to do anything stupid that will get me injured.

My goal for this race is to go sub-24. I ran 25:42 at Resurrection Pass, my first 100 miler last summer, and based on my training, the relatively flat course, and the fact that I won’t have to carry all my gear this time, I think this is a very attainable goal. Of course, we never know what surprises (good or bad) race day may bring, but I’m feeling confident heading into my taper.

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After much deliberation and discussion with my wife, I recently signed up for my next 100 miler: Rocky Raccoon in February in Texas.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed myself at the Resurrection Pass 100 earlier this summer, since then I’ve been curious what it would be like to run a more supported 100 miler, where I don’t have to carry a bunch of gear, and there are regular aid stations. Rocky Raccoon fits that bill perfectly: the course is five 20 mile loops, and there’s never more than 6 miles between aid stations. It’s also a very flat course, with only around 5000′ of elevation gain over 100 miles, which should help with a fast finishing time. Considering that I finished Resurrection Pass in 25:42, I feel like going sub-24 hours at Rocky Raccoon is a very reasonable goal.

Probably the hardest part about doing this race is going to be keeping up my training intensity going into the winter months. We still don’t have any snow at this point, but I’m sure that won’t last much longer. As the snow falls and temperatures begin to drop, it’s going to get harder and harder to get outside for those long runs.

At times like that, I’ll just remind myself of this:

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Sub-24 hour finisher buckle

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Several months ago, I remember filling out an online application for the 2014 San Fransisco Marathon Ambassador team. It was mostly on a whim, as I didn’t much expect to get chosen for such a thing. I’ve never been to San Fransisco, but it’s a place I’ve always wanted to go, and the marathon looks like it would be an awesome experience. So I went ahead and applied, hoping for the best, and then somewhat forgetting about it – until a few days ago when I got this:

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I’m very excited to be a part of this team. I’m not 100% sure exactly what’s going to be involved yet, but I do know that I hope to participate in their Worth the Hurt 52.4 Mile Run, where you run the marathon course twice – the first time you run the course backwards starting at midnight before the race, and then again with the official marathon.

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I’ve got a few exciting things coming up that I want to write about, but I’m behind on my race reports and felt like I should get those out first. So here they are in a two-for-one special:

Equinox Ultra

Back on September 21, I ran the 40 mile Equinox Ultra up in Fairbanks. I ran the full marathon last year and had a great time, so I figured I’d go with the ultra this year. There is a good amount of climbing in this race (the marathon is typically considered the 2nd hardest marathon in the country, behind Pike’s Peak), so I didn’t put too much pressure on myself in terms of a goal time, just to go out there and have fun, and see what the day brings.

It ended up being an absolutely beautiful day up in Fairbanks, albeit a cold one. It was around 28 degrees at the start of the race. That meant a few places were pretty slippery, especially as we climbed higher. Early in the race, around mile 10, my foot slipped out from under me and I went down. It wasn’t a particularly bad fall, but I landed in such a way that the wristband of my Garmin popped off on one side. Not wanting to take the time to stop and try to fix it, I stuffed the Garmin in my pocket and kept on running. Of course this meant that I hardly looked at it during the race, which really wasn’t such a bad thing.

Shortly after the race started, I bumped into Jeremy, and we started talking and running together. Not long after that we ran into someone else I knew from my Monday night running group and he joined us. Soon after, we picked up a 4th guy who was stationed at the army base in Fairbanks. We had our own little “ultra train” going, and I was reminded of this:

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At different parts of the race, we picked up and dropped other runners too. There were 6 of us running together at one point, and we were having a great time. I ended up finishing with 2 others (one of whom I ran with almost the whole day) in 8:10.

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The only disappointing part of the day is that I got separated from my buddy Ray (who I had planned to run with) right before the start of the race, and we never found each other again. Even worse was that he missed the turnoff for the ultra, and ended up “just” running the marathon.

Kenai River Marathon

The weekend following the Equinox Ultra was the Kenai River Marathon. I thought this sounded like a fun “end of season” race, but knew that I’d be tired having just run 40 miles the weekend before. I waited to see how my recovery from the first race went, and I was feeling pretty good, so I signed up for the marathon the Wednesday night before. The race didn’t start until 9am, and it’s about a 3 hour drive from Anchorage. Instead of paying for a hotel or dealing with camping, I just left my house at 5am and drove down that morning.

I knew this wasn’t going to be a “fast” race for me, so I started out at what I thought was a conservative pace. But after only a few miles, I was quickly becoming aware of how tired my legs still were, and it didn’t help that my right hamstring was already tight. Still, I managed to keep a pretty decent pace until around mile 20, when the wheels really came off. After a series of 3 long hills, my legs were pretty much done at this point, and I had to start applying liberal amounts of walking.

The rest of the race was pretty much a death march from that point, and I started cursing myself for thinking that running a marathon the weekend after a 40 miler was a good idea. Eventually, I crossed the finish line in 4:07, a minute slower than I ran this race 2 years ago. At least they were serving free reindeer sausage and beer for the runners at the finish line. Then I had the pleasure of the 3 hour drive back home with sore legs.

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