Rocky Raccoon 100 was held February 4-5 in Huntsville State Park, about 30 minutes north of The Woodlands, north of Houston, Texas. It was my 6th 100 miler attempt and with 3 finishes and 2 DNF’s on my UltraSignup list, I needed to complete this one to stay ahead of the count. That said, this one felt different the week leading up to the race. I don’t know if I was more confident, or simply nonchalant, but I was not nervous. The fact is that I was more excited about this one than any previous 100 miler. I knew this would be different. My preparation was logical and strategic with focus on specific strength training and realistic pacing expectations. Yes, I did math.
In the weeks leading up to the race, I responded to a Canadian runner who posted on the Houston Area Trail Runners (HATR) Members Facebook page that he was flying into Houston for Rocky and was looking for a ride to the race. This reminded me of when I posted something similar on the Twin Cities Trail Runners page leading up to Superior. Nobody offered to help me, so I felt it was my duty to help this guy and defend the honor of the Texas running community.
I picked up Erin, the Canadian, on Friday afternoon and headed to Huntsville State Park. The trip took about an hour so we were able to discuss all things trail running. Turns out he was pretty cool, he was not a Facebook killer, and we enjoyed each other’s company. We arrived at the park and both checked into the race about the time of the trail briefing.
The race is put on by Tejas Trails. This particular race was deemed the USATF 100 Mile Championship. As a USATF member, I signed up to see how I would place without any expectation of actually competing for the podium. When I got to the font of the packet pickup line, I was told I had to go to another line for bib pickup under the USATF race banner. It would have been nice to have a sign and the sign-in process did have room for improvement. The space was small and the atmosphere rather chaotic. Luckily, this was the only area of improvement I could mention regarding the race.
After finishing up with the trail briefing and leaving our drop bag for Damnation Aid Station, I dropped Erin at his campsite and I headed back south down I-45 to the Woodlands to meet my family for supper at Black Walnut Cafe. I feasted on Chicken Parmesan and then on to a hotel stay at Embassy Suites at Hughes Landing. I highly recommend this hotel if you have never been. After setting my race day wears out on the table and checking everything was accounted for, the family and I enjoyed a movie on the couch. 10:00 came and it was shut eye time.
I woke up 10 minutes before my alarm was to go off at 4:15. I quickly got ready, found notes left by my son and wife, and wrote a thank you note myself. My family doesn’t understand why I race these 100 milers, but their supportive words mean a lot to me. I stopped at the front desk on the way out and got a banana, granola bar and Rice Krispy treat. Driving away and onto I45 north, KB’s “They gonna know about us” was playing on the radio. Again, that strange feeling of confidence came over me.
Arriving at the park and finding a parking spot was easier than expected. The park staff knew what they were doing as cars lined up to enter. I made my way to the HATR tent and found Erin waiting patiently for the race to start. It was almost 6:00 am and close to 300 runners were giddy with excitement. It was go time.
The temps were in the 40’s but I felt comfortable with a long sleeve tech shirt under my HATR singlet. I wore a Buff under my Bocogear Technical Trucker and knit gloves to keep the fingers and ears warm. Lone Peak 3.0 by Altra were on my feet to provide good grip in the soft soil and plenty of cushion for 100 miles. They do lack any toe protection making kicking roots painful.
My fuel and hydration plan consisted of one 20 oz bottle of Skratch Labs Hydration Mix between every aid station, but two on the 7 mile Damnation Station loop. I left a hand held in my drop bag that went to Dam as well as a container of bulk Raspberry Skratch Labs. I had individual Skratch packets that I would take with me to use at Park Road and Nature Center stations while another bulk container at the start/finish (Dogwood). I fully believe in Skratch Labs. I train consistently and fully trust it helping me to perform, especially on humid conditions. Even though the temps were low, I heard many out of town runners complain about the humidity. Skratch Labs, go get you some!
Fuel wise, my plan consisted of roughly 350-400 calories per hour. Since the aid stations were approximately 3-3-7-3-4 miles apart for each of the 5 loops, I planned to pace at 5 miles an hour, and use the aid stations as cues to make sure I was eating. I carried homemade sweet-savory rice balls, sweet potato muffins, and Skratch Labs cookie mix (with peanut butter and jam of course). These were each individually wrapped and labeled and inserted into individually labeled zip lock bags. I stashed them at the start/finish and the Damnation Station. I thought I had used a good label system to know which bag to grab at each visit, but next time I’ll make it clearer, possibly with large colored stickers that I can identify better later in the race when I can’t see, read or comprehend well.
The race started and Erin and I ran together with a good pack. I quickly realized the race was full of out of town and international visitors. New Jersey, California, Colorado, Alaska, Canada, France, etc. It was quite a group. The field consisted of only 100 mile runners and most were 100 mile veterans.
At the first aid station, Nature Center, Erin continued ahead as I slowed to refill my bottle. My first attempt to pour the Skratch single pack into the bottle was a disaster as it went everywhere. My hands got sticky. I learned that the rest of the race I would simply stand to pour the powder and not attempt to run.
The winding course leading to Damnation slowly began to become visible through the heavy pine forest without a headlamp. The sky was cloudy so no sunrise was experienced, but I hoped I would not still be on the course for a second opportunity. The temps were great and the course was wonderfully grooved out single track with exposed roots, but thankfully no rocks. There was a long stretch of construction road made of pulverized sandstone. It was long and straight with several rolling hills for the last portion leading up to Damnation Station. Arriving, right on schedule, I left my globes, headlamp then refilled my bottle and grabbed the handheld. I was keeping my first bottle in my UD single bottle waste pack. The bottle sits in the small of my back and doesn’t bounce at all. The small pouches on the belt remind me of a Fanny Pack, but I wasn’t looking for style points. The pouches worked well for my fuel and kept my hands and back free.
The 7 mile loop out and back to Damnation was pleasant. I was running by myself at this point mostly. I would listen to the runners behind me. It was about this time when I listened to one runner speak of his grandfather’s time flying bombers in WWII. Fascinating stories. It kinda put the race in perspective.
The race continued from Damnation back down the construction road to Park Road Aid Station where volunteers had a Ricky Bobby, Shake and Bake theme. I popped out of the woods at the aid station to a loud whooping and hollering, enthusiastic reception. I shook my shoulders as homage to the Shake and Bake theme, refilled my bottles and I was out. I was now 4 miles from completing my first of 5 loops and I felt great. I was hitting my times, but I knew it was way too early to get over confident.
Leaving on my second loop from Dogwood 17 minutes ahead of schedule, I was running behind a gal from Colorado. We paced together for quite some time. She explained this was her 6th Rocky race. I thought it odd that runners would come to Houston to trail run, especially if they lived in the mountains with their picturesque trails. She reminded me that the rest of the country is currently in winter and it only makes sense to race in Houston!
At Nature Center, an aid worker recognized my HATR hat and insisted I take a picture with her so she could share with Emily. I have no idea who this lady was, but I knew Emily as well as Emily’s propensity for group selfies at Huntsville State Park runs.
Cruising through the race, I felt great hitting just in front of my time goals. I had planned to take an Advil at the start of Loop 2, but forgot since I was feeling so well. I did grab a dose at the start of the 3rd loop as my hip joints were flaring a bit. The only other dose I took was a half dose at Damnation on lap 4.
I was running unbelievably relaxed and under control. I guess it simply comes with experience, but I knew what the race was all about. I knew how I needed to run for myself to finish. I was fully prepared mentally and knew what my body needed physically. Shockingly at the start of loop 2 I was 18 minutes ahead of schedule of my anticipated pace to finish under 24 hours. I had never accomplished this goal. A sub-24 was always my “A” goal, but I never truly believed I could do it.
The third loop was uneventful. Just kept banging away on the mileage. Passed 50 miles at the 10:15 mark, matching the finish time of my first ever 50-mile race just 3 years ago and that was a pancake flat race! I have come so far. At the end of that first 50 miler I couldn’t hardly walk. Now I was prepared to run the distance again without stopping.
Through three loops everything had gone so well. I knew I had a chance. I only had to get to the fifth and final loop. Then I would have my secret weapon waiting in the form of my pacer, Daniel!
But not so fast, I needed to finish number 4 first and it started with a skate on the edge of disaster. While at the tent preparing to go out for number 4 and 23 minutes ahead of schedule, I was changing my socks per plan, but found out I was empty of Trail Toes! My feet are my number one priority in these races. I planned to change socks each loop and as part of that, apply Trail Toes. Luckily a savior and fellow HATR, Cecilia, was there and picked up a brand new jar of the anti-friction paste. Whew! But there was another issue, my watch had died around 16 hours. I had thought I had changed the settings to run for 25 hours, but alas it was dead. I plugged it into the charging stick and left it at Dogwood in my bag. I would run the 4th loop, in the dark, through miles 60-80 alone and without reference to time or distance. The other diversion from plan was that I learned at the trail briefing that as a USATF runner, headphones were not allowed. I had planned to use my iPod to help motivate me during this critical time. I’m always afraid of mile 62 as it was the distance of my first DNF that still haunts me.
Off I left on the 4th loop: no music, no watch, no pacer, and additionally it was too soon for another Advil dose. Strangely, … I welcomed the challenge. I was strangely confident in the freedom in which I was racing. I had no crutch. I only had my legs and my breathing to keep giving me feedback on my pace and condition.
Coming into Damnation I found another fellow HATR, Rueben. He is always so calm and his presence while I filled my bottles was much appreciated. He gave me some grilled cheese and I was out. From that point forward, grilled cheese was order of the moment at each aid station!
Another diversion from the suffering was my continued game of leap frog with a couple from Alaska. They were the most chipper 100 milers I had ever seen. They kept a continual conversation going between each other and any other runner that would come close. We shared laughter and trail stories. Those are the moments trail runners enjoy… comradery with perfect strangers on the trail in the middle of nowhere.
Throughout the fourth loop, I kept positive and thought of my secret weapon, Daniel, waiting at the turn for loop 5. I flew in only seven minutes ahead of pace and he was there, waiting and ready. He took over my thinking from that point forward. He is a veteran pacer of this race and knew what he was doing. He immediately told me to bring a pullover for the rain that was coming. Rain? Yep, it was forecasted for around 6 am. Early in loop 1, we runners were joking that to avoid the rain we would have to finish under 24 hours. Now it was real! Daniel instructed me to sit and change my socks per my earlier instruction, but I told him we had no time and had to roll. I wanted that 24 hour finish!
We charged out on the final lap. Daniel spent the first several miles assessing my condition with 100 questions. All-the-while, he would point out each and every root on the trail. At first I welcomed the conversation, but slowly it became played out. I finally told him I had already run 4 loops and knew where the roots were. I would only kick them the make sure they were still there!
I had put my watch back on at this point, but forgot to start it at the beginning of the loop. Therefore, I just turned it off and ran behind Daniel. Fully trusting him. He would push me with a “Let’s run!” but after some allotment of time, I would call out, “Done!” and we would go back to walking with purpose. This continued regularly, but on the 7 mile Damnation loop, I tripped and fell hard. Laying there on the ground felt unbelievable! Daniel came back and after making sure I was okay, lifted me up. I wish I had a video of it as Daniel is smaller than I am and it took two tries to get me back on my feet. I told him to just let me lay there for a while, but he was having nothing of that. He took my pre-race instruction to heart. A week earlier I told him, “Get me moving no matter what I say.”
During that last loop, I felt OK physically, just very tired. I was eating and Daniel was make sure of it. At each aid station he would hand me grilled cheese. The last two aid stations we transitioned from Skratch Labs hydration to straight Coca-cola. It was the rocket fuel so many had advertised.
Just past the last aid station, the concept of finishing before 6:00 became real, but it was time to push. All I could think was, “… 24 hour buckle. I want the 24 hour buckle. I want the 24 hour buckle….”
Just then a woman came up from behind us. She was chatty. Very chatty. Annoyingly chatty! She said she was worried she would not make the final loop cutoff and was pushing to get back before 6:00 as well. She kept talking behind me and Daniel kept speeding up, presumably to keep me on pace, but I think to get away from Ms Chatty! Either way, it worked.
With two miles to go, Ms Chatty had passed and disappeared into the darkness ahead, never to be seen again. Daniel kept saying, “Gotta go.” I was pushing. 98 miles behind me and only a bit more to go. My watch was off so I had no idea of the time was or pace. (A week later Daniel told me we were running at 8 minute-mile pace in that last stretch. Unbelievable, but I’ll take it.) I recognized the final mile as it twisted and turned. Finally, we turned the last corner and I saw the finish line at the end of the chute! I heard shouts as I came in. The red clock numbers read 23:50 as I came in.
Cecilia was still there and celebrated with Daniel and me. Luckily, she had the wherewithal to say, “You need a picture with the clock!” We took the picture and I was handed my buckle. I stared at that buckle. “I had a sub-24 buckle!”
After sitting at the timer’s table for about 5 minutes, I found my black hoodie and found open ground next to Erin the HATR tent. The next thing I knew I was awoken by rain water running under my right arm. I thought, “I beat the rain!” and immediately fell back asleep.
Awaking an hour later, Daniel looked fresh. He had showered and was smiling. I hobbled back to the truck, while Daniel and Erin took down the tent. With all the gear packed up, Erin and I left for the airport with my first 24-hour finish and new belt buckle.
Oh, my new Canadian friend unfortunately DNFed after 3 loops, but did bring a new HATR Buff back to Canada!
Official time was 23:50:59. Only two runners came in behind me and under 24 hours.
Placed 90th of 210 overall finishers…405 runners registered for the race, making my finish in the top 22% of the field.
Placed 35th of 62 finishers in 40-49 M Division….154 registered, making my finish in the top 23% of the field.
78th of 158 male finishers… 293 males registered, making my finish in the top 27% of the field.