A co-worker observed that I seemed to be more nervous about this 100-mile race than any other recent race. He was right. I really didn’t know what to expect, even though if successful, this would be my 30th career 100-mile finish in five years. My reason for a case of the nerves was a sore right knee. This knee had been scoped in 2004 and the doctor warned me that I should give up running. At that time I was not yet an ultrarunner, and not even a recreational runner. I ignored the doctor’s warning and put 14,000 miles on that knee since the operation. However, after my 83-mile run in the Grand Canyon on Thanksgiving weekend, the knee has been a problem again. Was my running career nearly over? The knee had calmed down, but I just wasn’t sure.
I signed up for Rocky Raccoon 100 again because a running friend, Jon Allen was going to run it as his first 100-mile race. Rocky Raccoon had been the site of my first 100-mile finish back in 2005, when I finished in 26:53. I was very pleased with that finish. In 2008, I returned very confident, but went away disappointed with a 25:38 finish. Heat and foot problems held me back that year.
Could I do better? Could I do much better? I set a public goal of finishing in 22 hours which would be a 100-mile PR, but I secretly believed I could finish in 21 hours.
The Rocky Raccoon 100 runs in Huntsville Stake Park, north of Houston, Texas. The 20-mile course runs all over the park, making its way all the way around Lake Raven. We would have to run the course five times to reach 100 miles. The course had been changed last year to eliminate two out-and-backs, replacing them with more forest single-track. I really enjoyed the new course much better. Most of the course runs through forest on a nice soft surface. Even though it would be a sunny day, I kept the sunglasses in the bag. Most of the trail was shady.
See the course map.
The weather turned out to be perfect for me. The low was about 38 and the high around 60. I never felt hot and when I was running, I never felt cold even though I ran in shorts the entire time. I did see many runners all bundled up, so it was cold out there for others.
I traveled to Texas with Jon and his pacers Cody and Paul. All three are elite marathon runners about 20 years younger than me. (Thankfully, they never called me “Pop”). They were fun to be around. Their vast serious running experience clear back to their high school days was interesting for me to listen to. On the other hand, my elderly five years of experience running ultras was also a source of knowledge for them to tap into. We all traveled to the race with a level of excitement and nervousness.
My strategy was pretty simple. I set my mind on three milestones. 1. Reach 40 miles in 7 hours. 2. Reach 60 miles in 11 hours. 3. Reach 80 miles in 16 hours. If I did this, I knew I could finish in 21 hours if I still had a running gear in my legs for the last loop. I also planned to go out fast as usual and go with what felt good. I would travel very light, carrying one water bottle, 2-3 gels, and my phone (doubling as an mp3 player). My fueling would be: Ensure, Heed, Gels, a little candy, and occasional aid station snacks of turkey sandwiches, cheese wraps, soup broth, and many cups of Coke.
Loop 1: 3:07 (miles 0-20)
Race morning arrived. The start area was a very busy sight to see as 344 starters did last minute preparations for their 100-mile ran. One hour later several hundred more runners would start their 50-mile race, filling the trail with nearly 700 runners total! This was a big-time race and it deserved special running attire. I put on my coon-skin hat and was ready for action.
I started near the front with Jon. I had hoped to try to run the first 20-mile loop with him, fearing that I could not keep up. As we got going in the dark, we became separated. We were being held back by a group of runners clogging the trail so I found a way around them, calling out to Jon to follow, but he didn’t hear me. Soon, I found myself in second place (The first-place runner ran off like he was shot out of a cannon.) OK, I had no traffic ahead of me, so I was content to run in second for about the first mile or so. I kept looking back for Jon. Finally I let several runners go by, hoping that Jon was behind them, but he wasn’t. Oh well, I knew he would catch up, so I just ran ahead.
We weaved in and out of the dark forest. I very soon noticed something interesting to me. I was able to maintain my place and even put distance on other runners while we were on the more technical rooty single-track. But when we ran on smooth straight dirt roads, the runners around me had much more speed.
The sun arose and it was light enough for me to store my light in my drop bag at Dam Road (mile 6.2) where I arrived at the 0:54 mark. I was probably still running in the top-15 or so. Where was Jon? Next up was a 6-mile loop that became my favorite section of the course. It had some nice straight sections where you could make some good time. Coming back, it winded through rolling forest, coming out along the Dam with a stunning view of the lake. It was great fun. The lack of altitude was an amazing feeling. There was so much oxygen to breath in here.
I did experience my first worry. At about mile 10, my knee really hurt badly. I tried all the tricks I knew to change my stride. Eventually it worked and things calmed down. But worries of a DNF started to enter my mind. I slowed my pace down to about 10-minute miles for awhile and that seemed to help.
There was a short out-and-back connecting this loop and you could see other runners coming toward you. I saw the slowest 100-mile runners already 5 miles behind and the very speeding 50-mile front-runners chasing me. Very soon the trail was crowded with hundreds of 50-mile runners. I greeted tons of them with a smile and words of encouragement. At times the trail was so jammed with runners not paying good attention, that I almost got into some head-on collisions. I was relieved when I reached the last six miles of the loop which was very quiet from runners, but noisy from the dull roar of cars on the nearby freeway. I was now pretty far ahead of the main pack of 100-mile runners and at times could not see any runners ahead or behind me.
When I reached the Park Road aid station, I saw Cody and Paul, who cheered me on. I’m sure they had the same question, “Where was Jon?” I wasn’t supposed to be ahead of him.
I finished the loop without any problems in 3:07. I was in 33rd place. I changed into a short-sleeve shirt, ditched the coon-skin hat, and was on my way again. Jon had arrived and was being crewed by Cody and Paul as I left. I was relieved to see that he was doing fine. (Bathroom breaks had been plaguing him.)
Loop 2: 3:38 (miles 20-40)
I charged on ahead, hoping Jon would soon catch up. Now, I could see all the runners behind me for the first three miles of the Loop. Matt Watts and other Colorado friends were about 40 minutes behind. Everyone seemed to have smiles on their faces, enjoying the day.
My pace seemed much slower now, but around mile 25, I felt incredible. I was pleased to be able to run with Larry Hall (running the 50) for a little while. At that point my legs felt great. On the 6-mile loop I was able to find some amazing speed, re-passing several runners.
Finally around mile 32, Jon caught up! It was good to see him, but the time to run together had passed. We both were focused on keeping our pace going the best we could. Jon eventually disappeared up the trail. I would see him next as I was completing the loop, when he was already on Loop 3, about 7 minutes ahead of me. I came in at 6:45, in 43rd place.
Loop 3: 4:20 (mile 40-60)
I finished Loop 2 at 6:45. I was pleased to see I reached my first milestone, 40 miles in 7 hours. But I needed to solve my main problem and took a 10-minute bathroom break. I was away again before the 7-hour mark. I knew that Jon was now far ahead. I continued on and could see that Matt and other friends were now about 6 miles behind. Could I keep the lead? I knew that quick aid station stops would be an important factor. All race, I had very speedy stops. For the first three loops I didn’t stop at all at the Nature Center and Park Road aid stations. My other stops were only a couple minutes. I noticed with those fast stops, I would catch up with other runners who had passed me.
Loop 3 felt like a struggle. The afternoon wasn’t too warm, but I still struggled to find the same speed. I was doing the best I could to hang on. At one point, I threw up and then immediately started running, feeling better. I caught up to a runner ahead and he said, “Didn’t you just throw up back there? And you are running fast again?” I laughed and told him that sometimes you just have to start to the stomach over again. I believe I reached the 50-mile mark in a sub-9-hour time, probably the fastest I have run that distance.
I started singing with my MP3. I guess a woman runner behind me had been listening for some time. Later at an aid station she said, “I really enjoyed your singing. You couldn’t hear, but I was singing harmony to ‘You are my sunshine.’” Pretty funny that someone could actually figure out what I was singing. My singing really helped me calm down and find a good quick pace.
I saw Cody at the Park Road aid station and he reported that Jon was about 45 minutes ahead of me.
Cody and Paul out for a run while waiting for Jon
During the final six miles of the loop, I set my sights to keep up with two fast-moving women runners. I struggled for a couple miles but then found new-found energy and really blasted fast ahead, especially on a downhill near the power lines. But they caught up when I blundered near the lake. I ran right past a “Wrong way” sign and started crossing over the end of the lake on a boardwalk bridge. Finally I noticed that nothing looked familiar, so I backtracked, feeling like a fool, hoping that no one noticed.
I saw Jon now running toward me with Paul. It was good to see them. Jon was still about 45 minutes ahead. I finished Loop 3 at the 11:05 mark with still an hour more of daylight left. I was five minutes behind my schedule, but doing just fine, now in 51st place. It still felt warm, so I just put a jacket around my waist and put a headlamp in a pocket. My bright flashlight was 6.2 miles ahead at Dam Road. Could I make it there before dark? I would try hard.
Loop 4: 4:44 (miles 60-80)
Loop 4 was incredible. My spirits were up, and my legs felt great. As the sun went down, it became cooler. I always feel a ton better near dusk. But I knew, that often after dusk, I get a bad bonk. So this time, I concentrated on eating and taking S-caps, more than usual. It worked. I never bonked the entire race.
I caught up with 78-year-old Grant Holdaway with pacer, Anne Watts. They were on loop 3. It was fun to see them and I ran behind them for a couple minutes. Grant is a true inspiration. Another inspiration to me all day was running buddy Phil Lowry, back in Utah. Phil had run amazing races at Wasatch and Bear last year. I kept thinking, “If Phil can run amazing races, I can too!” I would increase my concentration and pace, believing that this could be my amazing race.
At about mile 65, runners were pulling out the headlamps. But I refused, wanting to make it all the way to Dam Road where my light was. It was great fun to bound along the technical trail with great speed without a light. I’m sure the other runners thought I was nuts. But I made it.
I especially enjoyed the Dam Road aid station. We visited that station twice each loop. Mike Potter from Texas, one of my Facebook friends, would always be there to greet me, calling me by name. By the second loop, he noticed my pace and asked me if I was going for 18 hours. I laughed, “no 21.” Mike would always come over, offer me any help, fill my bottle, and tell me lies, like I was looking good. This time, I pulled out my light and put on my jacket. It was getting cool fast and I had stopped for too long. But a mile later, the jacket was off again as I was running at speed again.
I was now lapping many runners, an experience I didn’t experience much at past Rockys, but it would continue on for the rest of the race. I would end up lapping about 200 runners. It was great fun to see runners’ lights on the trail ahead. I would deliberately speed up to catch them and blow by them with great speed. It was good for my legs to push harder.
The night noises were incredible. The frogs along the lake were an eerie, noisy orchestra. Several times packs of coyotes started yapping and howling like crazy. It really sounded like some sort of soundtrack out of a horror movie.
On the downside, one annoyance was coming toward a runner who had their bright lights shining in your face. I tried not to let it bother me. My solution was to just pull down the brim of my hat very low and not look up. Hopefully they took the hint and didn’t continue this with other runners. There were several runners who had a blinking red light on the back of their hat or pack. I heard several others commenting how that was very bothersome. My solution was to really speed up and pass them as fast as I could so I wouldn’t have to watch that blinking light anymore. But besides that, the runners were all very nice and a pleasure to greet on the trail. I saw Matt for the last time on this loop, about 10 miles behind. He was still moving well.
I ran into Jon and Cody, who were now over an hour ahead of me, on their last loop, about five miles ahead. Before the race, I had been worried that Jon would lap me. It wouldn’t happen on this day. I was staying pretty close. The plan was for me to call Cody as I was nearing the finish so he could come and pick me up. When he saw me, he yelled out, “Call me anytime Davy.” Runners nearby laughed, it sounded like Cody was trying to pick me up.
I finished Loop 4 at 15:49!! Wow, I had reached my 3rd milestone with minutes to spare. I had climbed to 46th place. I still was running most of the time (no long walking stretches) so I knew a sub-24 finish was in the bag. Could I beat 21 hours? I knew it was very possible.
Loop 5: 5:11 (miles 80-100)
I continued to lap runner after runner. At Nature Center (mile 83), they asked me which loop I was on, “Loop 5.” I heard cheers. It finally hit me that I was really almost done. A runner on loop 4 said, “I wish I was you.” I quickly learned that if I kept my aid station visits short, I would stay warm. If I stopped more than two minutes, a chill would arrive. That was great motivation to keep moving.
When I reached Dam Road (mile 86), Jon and Cody were there, now six miles ahead. It was 17:46, and I really thought I could finish within three hours, so I told Cody to pick me up at 2:45 a.m. It hit me, I could finish at 2:45 a.m.! I had never finished a 100-miler before sunrise. I returned to Dam Road (mile 92.2) at about 19:15. I was now struggling with my pace. Finishing in under 21 hours was still possible but I would really have to hustle. With four miles and an hour to go, it was still possible, but I just couldn’t find the motivation to sprint. (Anything over a 12-minute mile felt like a sprint at this point.) With a mile to go, a runner passed me. We both congratulated each other. I let him go ahead.
As I was finishing, I pondered about how great I felt. I was anxious to finish, but I was feeling amazingly well. I could continue if I really had to. In fact, this was the best I had ever felt toward the end of a 100-mile race, yet this was the fastest I had ever run one. I was really convinced that running faster was a much easier and less painful experience than running much slower. I had feeling of empathy for the hundreds of runners who still had hours of running (mostly walking) ahead of them.
The lights of the finishing tents came into view. I crossed the finish line at 21:07. I had crushed my previous 100-mile PR by almost two hours. I had crushed my previous Rocky PR by over 4.5 hours. Wow! I was very, very pleased. I finished in 42nd place out of 344 starters. Cody and Paul were there to cheer my finish and take my back to the motel. They had just arrived back from dropping off Jon who had finished about 90 minutes before me. Joe, the RD, gave me a hug and my sub-24 belt buckle. Finally I had one of those for my collection.
I assessed any damage. No blisters. My knee was aching, but not swollen. That was the best news. My left quad was quite sore. I had been favoring the right knee, making the left leg do too much work. Besides that, I just had a little chaffing and would add a black toenail to my beautiful toes. I never changed my shoes or socks the entire race. I did a good job alternating between Ensure and Heed, so my stomach never rejected them totally. I also minimized my fluid intake during the night to avoid fluid retention that usually affects me.
Cody and Paul dropped me off at the motel while they went to get us burgers. Jon was resting well, pleased with his first 100-mile finish in 19:37. By 4:00 a.m., I was resting in bed. Wow, this was a new experience, trying to snooze on purpose while the race was still going on before sunrise!
I had a wonderful visit to Texas. Texas is always so nice to Davy Crockett for some reason. I suspect, I will return. Remember the Alamo.