I already had the title for this post planned out. Three letters: DNF. I made the decision at the Far Side aid station at mile 23.5. My legs were exhausted. I was barley shuffling along. Running? No. No running. Walking slowly. Very slowly. I had hit the wall and there was nothing left. I was done.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Friday mid-morning, I left Fort Worth for Huntsville, arriving in time to stop by the Court of Appeals in Houston (where I clerked my first year after graduating from law school). After a quick visit with some old friends, I headed back north to Huntsville State Park for the course briefing and packet pickup.
Each time I run an ultra-event, I make new friends, and the pre-race activities are more enjoyable. Unlike prior events, I had traveled to Rocky Raccoon by myself, so it was nice to see some folks I knew from past runs. After snagging my packet, I grabbed a seat and listened to Joe Prusaitis and his staff get us up to speed on what to expect the following morning.
Photo snagged from Anthony P's site.
I left the briefing excited about the run, but a little nervous that I wasn’t fully prepared. While I’d run the Bandera 50K a month ago, I’d done zero long runs since. The furthest (or is it farthest?) I’d run over the past four weeks was 8 miles. I justified it as tapering for the 50 miler. We’d see.
My alarm was set for 4:30 a.m., but I awoke at 4:11 a.m. and was out the door by 4:30 a.m. Because I was staying at a friend’s house in northwest Houston, I had an hour and fifteen minute drive to the Park, plus a pit stop at Waffle House for a hearty pre-race breakfast of 2 sausages, hash browns, 2 eggs, and a pecan waffle with syrup.
I arrived at The Lodge (race HQ) about 15 minutes after the 100 mile race began. I checked in, dropped my bag, and took a seat inside until they called us to the starting line 40 minutes later.
Photo snagged from Bad Ben's site.
Daylight had finally seeped over the land as we stood out front waiting for the run to begin. I found myself casually chatting with nearby runners about this and that, anything but the task at hand. At mile zero, you can’t even think about 50. I was wearing my El Scorcho shirt (good advertising) and had several conversations at the start (and throughout the day) about our midnight run in Fort Worth in July.
And then before I knew, Joe gave us the ten second countdown and I was quickly on my way.
Too quickly, might I add.
Some minor back story.... Despite, or perhaps due to, my anxiety after leaving the race briefing, I decided I need some inspiration before the race. So I called two buddies (the only two, besides the folks running RR, who somewhat understand my inexplicable enjoyment of extremely enduring endeavors) and laid down the gauntlet.
“PR or DNF,” I told Jballs and M. “I’m going out fast and am either going to break my Ultracentric time or crash and burn.”
What the hell was I thinking?
So… true to form, I pushed the pace. (Note to self: unless you’re an elite badass, it’s never a good idea to find yourself passing lots of runners during the first 10 miles of a 50 mile race.)
Map snagged from RR50 site.
The course is mostly single track with wooden footbridges traversing the lower, swampier sections. Unlike Bandrea, which was mostly exposed and 90% evil rocks, Rocky Raccoon primarily consists of dirt trails running under a tall growth of pine trees—which makes the ground nice and soft and covered by a bed of pine needles. There are lots of gnarly roots, but they’re manageable and not too difficult to navigate. While there is minimal elevation gain, the course is rarely flat with rolling hills throughout. There are aid stations sprinkled anywhere from 2.9 to 4.1 miles apart--3.7 miles from The Lodge to the Dam Road aid station, 2.9 miles from Dam Road to the Far Side aid station, 2.9 miles back to Dam Road, 4.4 miles to the CampSite aid station, and finally 2.9 miles back to The Lodge.
No problemo, right?
Photo snagged from Bad Ben's site.
The first loop went well. I was keeping a 10 minute per mile running pace (way too fast so early in the run) with walk breaks on some of the steeper inclines. However, because there weren’t that many steep inclines, but rather mostly gentle, albeit sometimes longish hills, I ran too often when I should’ve been taking walk breaks. (Second note to self: again, unless you’re an elite badass, always enforce walk breaks early in a run. You’ll need them later.)
I ran for a bit with a couple of guys who had flown in from New York for the 50-miler. They were going for sub-10 hours, which sounded pretty good to me. I stuck with them for most of the first loop, but they eventually pulled away.
About the time I got to the CampSite aid station (about 13.5 miles into the run), my legs started to exhibit just the slightest twinge of tiredness. Not a good sign with 37.5 miles to go.
Back at The Lodge, I changed into a sleeveless shirt to account for the escalating temperatures now that the sun had emerged. After retying my shoes and fueling on a PB&J and Gatorade, I jogged back out onto the course, naively confident in my ability. It had taken me 2 hours, 55 minutes to finish the first loop.
The race had dramatically spread out over the last 3 hours, and I found myself alone much more on the second lap, which was good. For the most part, I tend to prefer solitary running. My mind wanders, I take in my surroundings. It’s my own personal Zen meditation.
My legs were getting progressively heavier. Fatigue began to set in. The sun was gleaming through the trees, warming me considerably. Salty residue was beginning to cake on my brow.
Photo snagged from Crockett's site.
And then the bottom fell out.
Walking up toward Far Side, it hit me. I was exhausted. My legs hurt. Actually hurt. Not an acute pain, more of an overall ache. It reminded me of when I was a kid, and I would get leg cramps. Walking didn’t help. Stopping didn’t help. My legs throbbed. I was on mile 20. 13 miles back to The Lodge seemed like an eternity. 30 more to finish was a pipedream.
I walked slowly onward, telling myself to just keep moving. I grabbed my cell phone and sent a text message to my running buddies, “Mile 23.5,” it said. “Crash and burn in progress.” My tank was empty. Stick and fork in me, I was done.
Photo snagged from Crockett's site.
Over the next 10 miles, I tried to run, but it wasn’t too pretty. My controlled stumble didn’t increase the speed and only increased the pain. Leaving Dam Road for CampSite, I began to entertain thoughts of hanging it up. I’d never quit a race before, but the thought of running another loop was overwhelming. I rationalized dropping from the race, telling myself it was the smart move. I had multiple reasons for letting this one go—33 miles would be a respectable distance, I would save my legs for another day, I could drive home a day early to see Nell and Ezra, I could limit recovery time, etc. By the time I reached CampSite, I’d made up my mind. Once I reached The Lodge, I would hand in my chip and leave the race. DNF.
A few yards after leaving CampSite, I found myself walking alongside a guy who was doing the 100 mile run.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“Not good,” I replied. “I think this is about it for me.”
“You can do it, man.”
“Nah, I’m done. My legs are shot, I’m exhausted. I’m going to call this a ‘training run,’ hand in my chip, and head back to Fort Worth to see my wife and kid.”
“Alright, man. I can understand that. Good luck.”
Then he was off, and I was alone on the trail.
And then… something funny happened. I got a little pissed off. This is bullshit, I thought. You took off work, drove to Huntsville, got up at the ass-crack of dawn for this. And now you’re just going to call it a day? Yeah, you’re hurting. So what? Everyone out here is hurting. Even if the last loop takes 6 hours and you walk the whole way, you need to suck it up and do it. Pick up your damn legs and move.
So I did. I started running. Not just a hobbling jog either. I started really moving. I forced my stride further apart. I ran uphill and downhill. It was painful at first, but then the blood started flowing and, strange as it was, it felt good.
Before long, I passed the 100-mile guy. “Wow,” he said, “what got into you?”
“I don’t know, but I’m going with it.”
“Keep moving, brother!”
I got to The Lodge feeling a lot better, but still doubtful about finishing. The generous aid station volunteers asked me what I wanted. “Not sure,” I said. “I’m thinking that may have been my last loop.”
“Come on, man, you can do this.”
I contemplated. I ate some PB&J sandwiches. I drank some Coca-Cola. I thought some more. I looked at my watch. It had taken me 3 hours, 50 minutes to run the second loop—nearly an hour longer than the first loop had taken me. I grabbed a Gatorade.
Screw it. Let’s go.
Before any more doubt could sink in, I started running.
A mile or so into the final lap, I hooked up with Joe from Colorado, and we stayed together for the next 7-8 miles, motivating each other and telling stories. Joe's companionship really helped. While I might call myself a solitary runner, sometimes we need another person around to keep us moving. Thanks, Joe.
After Dam Road, I pushed the pace, and Joe bid me farewell. The 4.4 mile stretch to CampSite seemed to take forever, but once I arrived, I knew I had it in the bag. Following some advice I’d heard recently—“Don’t make love to the aid station”—I didn’t dawdle, slamming my Gatorade and ham sandwich quickly. 2.9 miles to go.
2.9 miles took longer than it normally would've--about 40 minutes or so--but I made.
And then I was done. 50 miles. 10 hours, 11 minutes, 5 seconds. A PR by more than 16 minutes.
Thanks to all of the volunteers. You were marvelous, absolutely marvelous. Thanks to my fellow runners who shouted words of encouragement. You kept me motivated. Thanks to Joe for keeping me moving. Thanks to Nell and Ezra for supporting me and letting me disappear for two days to run around in the woods like a crazy person. Thanks to M. and Jballs, whose ridicule for a DNF played in my mind as I considered dropping.
Next year, I’m going for the 100. I.I.T.S.