It's been "go big or go home" for me lately when it comes to racing. So as I sit down to write this, my first thought is that maybe I didn't go "big enough" at the Rocky Raccoon 100 this past Saturday. Surely the prize money and the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run auto-entry for a top-three finish is as big as this sort of thing gets, and a reason to pull out all of the stops. My effort fell a bit shy of that mark.
And considering that earlier today, I ran 6 miles at a typical training pace, my legs a little less than hard-marathon-sore, while others who finished ahead of me described their post-race experience as "crippled" and "hobbling" (and based on the people that finished close to me, I'd say that those words were not exaggerated), I can't help feeling that maybe I left something on the table.
But after further consideration, I think that I took a lot more away from this experience than a very respectable 11th overall/9th male/6th USATF male (i.e. competing under USATF rules, meaning, among other things, no pacers, no headphones) finish and a 16:38:36 100-mile finishing time (second-fastest 100-mile run time for me). What I took away was arguably more important than either the prize money or the Western States 100 auto-entry.
But more about that in the closing paragraphs. For now, the race:
After my third-place finish at the US National 24-Hour Championship (this thing), the US National 100-Mile Trail Championship seemed like the logical "next big thing," especially since it was about three months away (a decent amount of time to recover and rebuild), and at Rocky Raccoon, a race where I ran well in 2009. The added benefit of having one more long race to add to my Badwater 2014 application, just before the application would be due, made Rocky Raccoon too enticing to pass up. And of course, with the prize money and the Western States 100 auto-entry on the line, this race was going to draw a deep, competitive field, which would make it exciting to be a part of.
Between the US National 24-Hour Championship and Rocky Raccoon, I continued to train and race. I ran 2:55:12 at the NCR Trail Marathon, as sort of a "target of opportunity" race, since it was a short drive, and a Boston-qualifying course. A couple weeks later, I made it only a little past 70 miles in 12+ hours at the Desert Solstice 24-Hour Invitational, before throwing in the towel, primarily due to a total lack of any sort of speed. Then I took some time off, and started a mileage re-build in mid-January, so by the time that it was Rocky Raccoon time, I was in the best shape that I could reasonably be in. But given this mixed bag of training, I couldn't be totally confident that this was going to work out. If anything, my performance at Desert Solstice had me slightly concerned that I had either reached my ultimate performance limit, or burned out entirely.
In the interim, life also happened. My beloved 2001 Honda Civic EX (five-speed manual transmission, accept no substitutes), with over 207,000 memorable miles, nearly all of them driven by me, was totaled, in an accident that I watched from outside of the car, and I changed work assignments, both of which required plenty of attention that I may have otherwise given to running. And then, on this trip, since I would be in Houston for a day prior to the race, and my girlfriend lived there for a substantial period of her life, I made a point of visiting all of her recommended restaurants, parks, and other attractions (incidentally, I highly recommend the Rothko Chapel). Not to mention that I was car-pooling/room-sharing with two other runners, which I don't normally do (although this made for a highly amusing trip to the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas, the town where the race is held).
So there were plenty of twists and turns and distractions, enough so that on the eve of the race, I wasn't particularly excited about running it. In my mind, all of the other experiences that were rattling around in my mind, both on this particular trip, and in my life in the past few months in general, were far more meaningful and substantive than five 20-mile loops in a state park in an obscure city in Texas. I didn't NOT want to run the race, but my pre-race lacked a certain sort of nervous energy that I'm used to before huge events like this.
On the other hand, being less wound-up about the race afforded sounder pre-race sleep, and helped me keep my cool during the parking catastrophe that turned a 20-minute drive to the start of the race into a 60-minute lurching-slowly-forward car-march. Jackie, Robin, and I arrived at the start with about 10 minutes to spare, which is just the right amount of time to get to the starting line with your shoelaces fully tied, but not so much time that you pace idly back and forth and waste precious running energy. It's even enough time to go back to the car, get your phone, and bring it back to your start/finish drop bag, as I learned by doing exactly that, re-arriving at the starting line about two minutes before the start, and using most of that time to weave through the 600-person crowd to the front of the pack, where I presumed optimistically that I would finish.
The countdown to the start happened, and we were off, at a leisurely pace for maybe the first quarter-mile, before, inevitably, people started sprinting ahead. I was not at all surprised or shaken by this. I said repeatedly, to various people in the weeks prior to the race, that my goal was to run the first 20-mile loop no faster than 2 hours, 50 minutes, and do the best I could from there, and that if I stuck to that plan, there would probably be about 40 people ahead of me at the end of my first loop. That's how competitive races with a lot of whatever-you-want-to-call-it on the line work. I didn't keep exact tabs on all of these numbers, but that's about what it felt like.
For my part, the first loop felt easy and comfortable. The course was in great shape, with only a few random mud puddles here and there, all easily avoidable. Of course, the roots were out in force, as they were on my last go-around with this race, but I was having no trouble picking up my feet and picking past them. Some minor aches and pains settled out in the first half an hour, and I found myself enjoying the relative warmth. After a month of running in temperatures in the teens every day, weather in the high 60s feels like a tropical paradise. And not entirely in a good way, as it also had me drinking 20 ounces of water every half-hour, in my non-heat-acclimated state. But overall, after a first pass, the course seemed easier than I had remembered it. I even found myself socializing with other runners during the race (as it turned out, the woman who would go on to finish in second place), which I don't often do in these sorts of races. And, with a split of about 2:55, I had more or less achieved my first-loop goal.
The second loop was more of the same. Now we were entirely in daylight, so I could see better the parts of the course that I had run in the dark on the first loop, which added some variety to an otherwise monotonous task. The eventual second-place woman, Kaci Lickteig, passed me on this loop (handing me a gel that had fallen out of my pocket as she passed, which was nice of her), and I passed a couple of others that were ahead of me, including Neal Gorman, who was walking at the time, but would go on to make a very strong comeback. With an extra bathroom stop (the most interesting one, and perhaps the most interesting thing that happened on this loop, being the one where I went off the side of the trail to pee in the woods, and who should pass, but none other than Connie Gardner), and a few more walk breaks, I finished this loop in about 3:10, still feeling okay.
In the third loop, the wheels came off a bit. Just outside of the Dam Road Aid Station (colloquially, the "Dam Nation Aid Station," due to its being the beginning and end of a six-plus-mile loop, the longest unaided section of the course), I waved to a couple of runners who were coming back, took my eyes off of the ground, and caught my toe on a root. I sprawled forward, fortunately onto soft pine needles, so there was no real damage done. But, having hit the deck, I was a bit shaken, and so, a couple of miles later, when I went to try to swallow something, I choked on it, and immediately had a violent vomit reflex. Although I didn't actually vomit, my body wanted to, and it took some standing still, followed by some slow walking, to bring me back to "comfortable" (in a relative sense, considering that I was some 7-plus hours and nearly 50 miles into the race). As a result of that episode, I stopped eating for a bit, and soon found myself dizzy and low on calories. Fortunately, I was carrying a few gels, so I pounded those, then headed quickly, yet conservatively, to the next aid station, where high-glycemic-junk-foods of every variety awaited me. While it was an ugly, slightly slow patch, it was far from the typical "bad patch" that people talk about in these races, and probably cost me only about 10-15 minutes, as my overall lap split of 3:25 suggested.
No major mishaps on the fourth loop, as night began to fall and people began to turn from runners into zombie-walkers. I continued at a steady pace for the most part, taking walk breaks only when I felt that they were absolutely necessary, and continued my trend of not being passed by anybody, but not making what I believed to be any major passes, either. It's worth pointing out that in a loop course that doubles back on itself in several places, it's hard to tell when you're passing people as opposed to lapping them. So I could have been legitimately passing lots of people, but unless they were people that I could recognize under headlamp light, there was no way for me to know. And, in a way, it didn't matter to me. By this time, I was fairly "locked in," making steady progress, enjoying the race, and not really stressing too much about anything. I turned in another 3:25 lap, and felt no dread at heading out for one more lap.
In the final loop, things got tougher, in a relative sense. Given the general trend of my laps getting slightly slower each time, I anticipated more effort to counteract the natural slowing effect, which I needed to counteract to the maximum extent possible if I were to run a mid-16-hour race, as my prior lap times had now positioned me to run. I can't say that the last lap hurt any more than the prior laps. But it definitely required more focus than the previous laps. As far as I could tell, I was in no-man's-land, with nobody close to passing me, or nobody close to me to pass, and the best I could do was to continue doing what I had been doing. I ran the final lap entirely in the dark, which slows progress somewhat, as a headlamp can only illuminate things so much. In spite of some slower first segments, and nearly running headlong into Jason Lantz as he was coming out of the Dam Road/Dam Nation loop for the final time, and I was going in, I managed to hold it together, especially in the final segment of the last lap. About a mile from the finish, I was running up behind two runners who were walking abreast, and I said "excuse me," but they must not have realized how quickly I was coming up on them, and were slow to move out of the way. To avoid running headlong into them, I half-stepped, and caught my toe on a root, falling one last time before the finish. Again, as a fall into soft pine needles, very little damage happened, beyond a dirty arm and a slightly skinned knee.
If anything, the last fall gave me a little adrenaline boost that I may well have needed to finish as I did. Near the beginning of the last loop, I had contemplated walking it in at the very end, not because I expected that couldn't run, but because I felt as though I had given everything that I had, and done as much as I could have reasonably done that day, and that a finishing sprint would serve no purpose. But with the adrenaline surge still fresh, and the finish line so close, I started pushing a little bit, and managed an impressive finishing kick, which maybe a half a dozen people who could find the live finish line webcam and were watching it at nearly midnight (Eastern Time) may have seen. Slightly more importantly, I edged out the 12th overall/10th male/7th USATF finisher, TJ Dunham (who I later found out that Jackie had been repeatedly mistaking for me in the dark, saying hello and being puzzled by why she never got a response) by less than a minute, having no idea that he was behind me the whole time. (You know, for whatever that's worth.) I also edged out the 3rd place female finisher, Shaheen Sattar, who had apparently been chasing me for the better part of the race, unbeknownst to me. (You know, for whatever THAT'S worth.) If nothing else, maybe I learned my lesson after the near edge-out at the finish of the NCR Trail Marathon this past October . . . all the way through to the line, all the time.
Not knowing any of that at the time, I raised my hands in triumph at the finish line anyway, and happily accepted the super-awesome re-designed Sub-24-Hour Finisher belt buckle and USATF medal for 6th Place Male, Open Division. Then I congratulated all of the near-finishers to me, in their various states of disarray (Nicole Studer, the female winner, being the sweetest, and in the least disarray), and proceeded to spend several hours by the heater, lounging in a Texas-flag-themed camp chair, nursing a cup of mashed potatoes, and eventually nodding off to sleep.
I spent most of the time between my finish and Robin's and Jackie's finishes (just under 28 hours, and just over 29 hours, respectively) in the finish area tent, picking at the aid station food, helping out distressed runners where I could (turns out that chafing is EVERYBODY'S problem, and that the extra Butt Paste that I had brought along is decidedly the answer), and generally enjoying being outdoors (although never too far from the heater for too long, as I was having trouble maintaining my core temperature in the 50-degree, off-and-on rainy weather).
And now we come to the moral of the story, if there is one. At the time, during the race, I felt as though I was giving everything that I had, and that I couldn't possibly have gone any faster. After the race, I reasoned that my near-vomit escapade on the third lap cost me up to 15 minutes in time, but would have made no difference in finishing place, and was probably incidental to the experience. But once again, considering just how broken every other finisher near or ahead of me seemed to be, and how functional I am as I type this, I wonder if I had more, and just wasn't able to access it, for whatever reason.
But regardless of what I had or didn't have left in the tank, what is clear to me is that this is the second-fastest 100-mile race that I've ever run, and through smart training, planning, and, most of all, working with my body and with life circumstances in general, I managed to maximize not only my performance on race day, but, more importantly, my life experience as a whole relative to this race. The biggest accomplishment here is not my finishing time, but the way that I got there - through continued focus and resilience, while allowing things that could have been distractions or detriments to instead compliment or contribute to the experience.
I'll stop with that line of commentary here, as it's pretty much impossible to talk about this sort of thing without drifting off into various platitudes that soon start meaning nothing to people that haven't already had the experience, and therefore don't really need to hear them in the first place. Let it suffice to say that for once, I truly feel the weight and value of all of those over-worn, home-spun sayings about patience, persistence, and commitment to excellence. I'm sure that there are plenty more life experiences on the way that will one day make what I believe today to be a deep understanding of all of this seem relatively shallow, but for now, I consider this a major milestone not only in race performance, but in overall maturity in that other silly game that we're all playing, called "life."
And so, after an ambiguous past few months, it is once again clear to me that I'm on the right track, I'm doing things the right way, and that, regardless of what the deal was that day, there's more in the tank for the future, and many more good things on the way.
That, and I STILL haven't seen a single gosh-darn raccoon, rocky or otherwise, on that course.