Rocky Raccoon 100 is where it all began for me back in 2005. This was the scene of the crime where I finished my first 100-mile race in 26:53.  I returned for the 4th time, this time seeking my 38th 100-mile finish.  Last year I had a nearly perfect race, finishing in 21:07.

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 in recent years to eliminate two out-and-backs, replacing them with more forest single-track. Most of the course runs through forest on a nice soft surface. See the course map.

This year, prerace, there was a little bit of drama.  With a week to go, the race director announced that headphones, and the playing of any music at all, would be banned and would result in disqualification.  This was a huge surprise to many and started a stir on the Internet blogs.  Whether you like runners with headphones or not, it seemed very unfair to ban them for a large number of runners who enjoy listening to music for at least a portion of the very long hours of a 100-mile race if there is not safety issue.  But some people have a bias against them and want to impose that view on others.   Thankfully the race director received feedback and backed off for this year.  Still, it bothered me that race directors could impose such an influence on the sport. Even if the RD wouldn’t have backed down, some runners were still planning to run with them and it would have been quite a scandal to possibly have some top runners in the world DQed.   With more thought, I even wrote a little article about the issue here.   Again, to the RD’s credit, with even more thought he announced that next year there wouldn’t be a ban either.  It looks like the drama is over.

The other big issue facing the race was the weather.  I like the challenge of bad weather knowing that I usually place higher in the standings, but it does usually slow down the times for everyone, including me.  The great tragedy this year was that the national storm ended up cancelling many flights of runners trying to get to the race.  Probably more than 100 people couldn’t make it for the 50 or 100-mile race because of the fierce weather.  I was lucky, my flight wasn’t canceled.  The night before I watched the weather map and it was amazing how the storm missed Huntsville State Park.

For goals this year, I really hoped to break 20 hours for 100 miles.  I had broken that mark at Across the Years 48-hour, a month earlier, but still wanted to do it in a 100-mile race.  I also wanted to place in the top-three for the Masters (age 50 and older).

I arrived at Huntsville as planned and checked in, said hi to friends and then rested for the evening at a motel.  With only a few hours of sleep, I arrived at the park in plenty of time and just waited in my warm car for the start.  It was a frigid 21 degrees.  I dressed a little warmer than usual for the start of a 100.

At the morning race checkin

My first blunder came fast.   While I was getting ready for the start, putting my jacket in my bag, I heard “5, 4, 3, 2, 1.”   Sure enough, the race started without me!   I pushed my way through the crowd of onlookers and jumped in mid-pack.  I didn’t even have my watches started.   Oh well, I didn’t sweat it, but now I was in a crowd of slow walkers.   I had hoped to run awhile with the front-runners, but that wouldn’t happen.  For the first couple miles, I passed about 150 of the 316 starters, and by the third mile was finally running at the pace I desired on the dark trail.  It was now quiet, I couldn’t see lights either behind me or ahead of me.  I eventually caught up with a small pack of runners who must have been the second major pack.

My Garmin track

My Garmin track

For the first 20-mile loop, everything seemed to go as planned.  My only challenge was pain from my extracted wisdom tooth a few weeks ago.  It was still a big pain and worry, but eventually calmed down.  I dropped my flashlight at the Damnation aid station (mile 6.2), clocking the first 10K in 54 minutes.  I knew the next 6-mile “Damnation Loop” would roll and be somewhat slower, so I concentrated hard on keeping my pace up.  My Garmin was doing a great job keeping a signal and helped me keep my pace below a 9-minute pace.   After completing the loop, we now greeted the many fast running 50-mile runners who started an hour after us and were coming toward us.   The trails were now loaded with about 500 runners.

Runner approaching a bridge in the forest

Runner approaching a bridge in the forest

The early morning was still very crisp.  The ground had no snow or mud, but was frozen.  The most difficult obstacles were the periodic wooden bridges which were covered with a layer of white frost.  I tried to go around these bridges whenever possible, but some couldn’t be avoided and at times were pretty slippery.  Perhaps in future years they could lay down some carpet on the ramps up and down to the bridges.  I heard that there were several serious injuries on those bridges and even Anton took a spill off of one of them.

As I reached the final couple miles of the loop, I ran into the front-runners on their second loop.  It was a sight to see so many ultrarunning legends all together.  Anton, Scott, Zach, Karl, and others.  Wow!   As Karl approached he yelled out to me, calling me by name.   I heard comments all day from other runners about how much they were impressed by these front-runners and their friendly comments to them. They were a great example to all of us. My kindest comment during the race was probably when I expressed deep apology to a runner who passed me right after I barfed all over the side of the trail.

I finished my first loop of 20 miles in exactly 3:00, my fastest lap ever at Rocky and five minutes ahead of my goal.  I was in 28th place.  My stop was pretty fast.  I took off a layer, left behind my warm hat, and was back on the trail.   It was now exciting to run the next couple miles and see how friends were doing.  It seemed like everyone had big smiles on their faces and I tried to say hi to everyone I saw.

My pace continued to go very well for the next ten miles.   The front-runners kept extending their lead on me pushing over six miles.  I also pushed a six-mile lead over many friends.  I could check my progress after the six-mile Damnation Loop, again on a two-way traffic section.  This is a wonderful feature of the race.  Instead of running many miles alone, you have several sections where you can greet runners coming toward you.

Trail over the dam.  You could really run this section fast.

Trail over the dam. You could really run this section fast.

Then my first major problem crept up.  I had a terrible pain in my gut that just would not go away.  It really started to slow me down and took the fun out of the race. I just couldn’t push the pace fast anymore. Many people started to pass me. I believe it cost me about 15 minutes during the second loop.   I finished that loop in 3:41, now in 40th place.  But I was only eleven minutes behind schedule.

However, I took a very long stop after this loop, more than 20 minutes, with 15 minutes in the bathroom.  With my problem mostly solved, now discouraged, I was back on the trail.  I was now probably in about 60th place and could tell the other runners around me were running slower than those I had run with before.  I could see friends that had gained 2-3 miles on me.  So, I set my mind on recovering.  I originally planned on doing a four-hour loop 3.  I changed plans and was determined to run a 3:45 loop.  Using my Garmin, I made sure each mile was at least a sub-11-minute mile.  For each mile, I congratulated myself for getting a minute back.

I knew that the front-runners would lap me during this loop.  I wondered how long it would take them to catch me.  At about mile 47, I was stunned to see runner #6 with his pacer run past me up a small hill.  I had no idea who he was (Ian Sharman).  He was chatting away with his pacer and looked like he was out for a short fast run.  Wow!

I reached the 50-mile mark in just under 9 hours.  Not bad, but still not as fast as planned.  I know I could have done better. Anton lapped me after Damnation aid station at mile 53.  I had enough energy to run behind him for awhile.  I checked my Garmin and he was running at a 8:30 pace on the dirt road before the two-way single track.   I backed off, wanting to save some speed to run with Karl Meltzer who should be catching up soon.  Runners who came toward me were all smiles, telling me that I could catch up with “the leader, Anton.”  I knew he wasn’t the leader but just laughed and said I was 20 miles behind him.

I continued on, feeling pretty good.  Where was Karl Meltzer?  Where was Scott Jurek?  I finally concluded that they had dropped.  But just as I approached the power lines at about mile 57.5, I looked back and saw Karl catching up.  He took off his head phones and we chatted for a minute.  He thought Anton was leading, but I didn’t challenge that thought, still wondering about runner #6 who must be nearly six miles ahead.  Karl explained that Scott had dropped after 60 miles.  I wished Karl well, he put the headphones back on and we ran on.

Could I keep up?   I wondered.  Why not try for awhile.  My lazy legs kept the faster pace going.  I felt great.  Why not keep it going?  So I fell behind Karl and matched him stride for stride.  He periodically looked behind him, seeing that I was still there.  When we reached the uphill portions, I dug even deeper and had to even back off because I would have passed him.  On the two-way section, I noticed runner #6 go by again.   Other runners who we were we came upon would call out Karl’s name.  They would look at me with looks of, “who is he?”  I smiled and kept the pace, running right with Karl. Our pace on the rolling single track was between 8:00-9:15.

When we reached the sharp turn near the head of the lake, Karl stopped to stretch out an ITB.  I asked if he was OK and he said he was, so I went on ahead.  For the rest of the loop, I stayed just ahead of Karl, having a blast running like crazy.  When we reached the flatter wide sections, I checked my Garmin.  We had been running at a 7:30 pace.

In the home stretch toward the aid station, we took off our headphones and I thanked Karl for waking up my legs.  He gave me kind words back about my good pace.  My running time for the loop was less than 3:45, but including the long stop at the beginning, it was 4:05.  But the good news was that I was back in 40th place and was only 14 minutes behind my goal pace.  I was nearly 20 minutes ahead of my last year’s pace.

I wished that I could continue to run with Karl, but his transition at his drop bag was much faster than mine.  I needed to gather some warm clothes for the night and eat some things.  I should have tried much harder to continue on with him.  I probably could have kept up for several more miles.  Karl would go on to finish in 4th in 14:27.  He later told me that he ran every step except for about 20 yards.

But, I was back on the trail and quickly fell back to my pre-Karl pace.  My next goal was to reach Damnation Aid station before dark, because my flashlight was there.  I did fine, arriving there 20 minutes before dark arrived.  I put another layer on top, but within a half mile was taking it back off.  It just wasn’t that cold yet.

Road in the forest to Damnation Aid station

Road in the forest to Damnation Aid station

Typically after sunset of a 100-miler, if I’m not careful, I go into a bad bonk, low in calories and electrolytes.  Again today, it started to hit me.  My energy went down and so did my pace.  My stomach just wasn’t very happy and my appetite was low.   I tried to solve things, but wasn’t focused enough on the problem, and just ran on.

I really enjoy running in the dark and on this loop enjoyed reeling in the lights ahead of me.  Most of them were slow-moving runners who I was lapping, 20 miles behind me.  But there were a few runners on the same loop.  I could tell by their pace.  They had lost their up-hill running gear, but I still could run up and down as I wished.  But my problem stomach just wouldn’t let me run really fast anymore.  I ended up lapping more than 100 runners.

The night in the park around the lake is wonderful.  There were no frog noises this year, probably because of the cold air, but there were occasional howls from the coyotes.  That was very cool.  I finished loop 4 with an upside-down stomach, after a 4:24 loop, now in 32nd place.  Not bad, but I knew I was nearly an hour behind my goal pace.

Still standing at mile 80

Still standing at mile 80

I sat down in the warm tent across from Karl.  He was all smiles, his race finished and he asked how I was doing.  I just groaned.  He laughed and said he knew how I felt.  I had only been lapped by four runners during the race.  Karl had been the last to lap me. No one had lapped me during my fourth loop.

I also discovered that I was sitting next to buddy Josh Whiting who was a lap behind me, still doing very well, trying to finish his first 100-miler (He went on to finish in 28:56.)  I made some adjustments, ate some food, changed batteries, and soon got ready to hit the trail again.  I commented to a volunteer that my quest for a sub-20 was over.  But still, I was a half hour ahead of last year.  If I could hold things together, I could beat that time and even set a 100-mile race PR.

But, the last lap was rough.  The cold night set in.  I was still running in shorts, probably a mistake.  At times the wind was very chilly.  I tried very hard to keep a pace under 15:00, but I was lost my motivation and started to become pretty lazy, doing a 12:00 pace run, and then a short 20:00-pace walk, over and over again.  When I reached the aid stations, I would waste time sitting near the heaters trying to warm up and recover.  Eventually, I had just one focus in mind: the warm bed in my motel room!  The faster I ran, the sooner it would arrive and then I could snooze.

At the last aid station, the lady there told me I just had 4.4 miles to go.  Other runners still on loop 4 groaned, wishing they were me.  I just couldn’t imagine another 7-8 hours out there.  I really looked forward to finishing.

But, I changed my attitude, and decided to just enjoy the rest of the run.  I had low energy, gave up on eating, but my legs and feet felt great.  Why not just enjoy the night?  When I reached the bridges, I sat down on one, to take a very short rest and take some S-caps.  A runner behind caught up, asked if I was OK.  I was in good spirits and just explained that I deserved to take a little break with a couple miles to go.  He also was on his last loop but said he was going to just power hike it in.  That woke me up.  I wasn’t going to let him pass me, so I started running again and watched his light disappear behind me.

The finish line came into view faster than expected, and I crossed the line in 21:22, in 34th place.  I knew that I was 15 minutes slower than last year, but I was pleased considering the conditions.  Last year was nearly a perfect race for me without any serious issues.  This year, I pushed through some challenging problems, long stops, and still finished well.

The finish area was quiet, just a couple runners or volunteers huddled in blankets.  I only spent five minutes there, convincing the kind volunteers that I was just fine to drive in to Huntsville.  By 4:15 a.m., I was showered and resting in a warm bed feeling wonderful to finally be off my feet.

At 8:30 a.m., after some catnaps, I returned to the park to watch runners finish their race.  Each was an amazing accomplishment to witness.  I checked the standings on the Internet and was surprised to discover that I indeed did place in the top Masters (age 50+).  It turned out that I came in third place, not far behind Jeff Holdaway who finished each of his loops within a couple minutes of mine.  But he held it together better on Loop 5.  I wasted too much time camping out in the aid stations.  For 3rd place, I received some nice pottery as a trophy.  Very cool.

But the big news of the race was Ian’s amazing 12:44 course record.  It will likely be the ultrarunning performance of the year.  Later at the airport, I again met Karl Meltzer and we talked about that amazing accomplishment.  To average a 7:38-mile pace for 100 miles is mind-boggling.  Well done Ian!

2011 Rocky Raccoon 100 is in the books.  316 runners started, 190 finished for a pretty low finish rate in some colder than normal conditions.