At mile 92 of the Rocky Raccoon 100 I was in danger of, once again, becoming a victim of compromising my goals and settling for less. Why? Simply because I was tired. My legs hurt. I was cold. It was dark. It wasn’t important. My feet hurt. My back hurt. I was hungry. I needed to sit down. I wanted...... whatever. The only thing easier than quitting is dreaming up an excuse to do so and the excuses were coming faster than I could process them. I could walk the rest of the way and still finish in 22 or 23 hours, collect another sub 24 belt buckle and call it a great race. Nobody would care. Nobody except me.
Back in October, after finishing the Arkansas Traveller 100, the thought of a sub 20 hour finish at Rocky began creeping into my head. The VOICES were chattering and I started to believe them. I consulted with Jeff Kline, head coach and founder of PRS Fit, and he confirmed that it was a realistic and achievable goal. PRS Fit is an online coaching service that provides one on one training for runners of all levels even mere mortals like me. I had been training with Jeff since June of 2012 and the AT100 was our first real test. Considering my strong finish, I was convinced that if I trusted and followed through with his training plan, we would have success at Rocky in February. Jeff made plans to make the trip from Colorado to Texas, at his own expense no less, for crewing/coaching and pacing purposes.
The training schedule was sent to me weekly. As each week unfolded, I began to realize that something would have to change. 2 - 2.5 hour runs during the week would require a different approach. In the past, I had mostly confined the mileage to 5 or 6 during my lunch hour and then piling some long stuff in on the weekends. I started waking up early and running on the treadmill before work. It wasn’t long before I was waking up at 1:45 a.m. to run 2.5 hours before leaving for work at 5 a.m. I quickly adopted the mantra "Eye on the Prize" and repeated that to myself over and over and over.....
Of course, November and December, are insanely busy months for those of us with families. Things got a little more hectic when both my five year old and ten year old boys signed up for the local basketball league. As much as I wanted to have a great race in February, that was not going to take precedence over watching my boys play. With the youngest playing on Friday nights and the oldest playing on Saturday, I had to figure out how to squeeze in long runs that started at 20 miles and peaked at 50. At first, it was stressful to “map” it all out but then I had a realization. 100 milers are run on tired legs and tired bodies. I could simulate some of that by sleeping 3 or 4 hours on a Friday night and then jumping on the treadmill before Saturday’s ball games. A few times, I had to split the run and do half before and half after a game but most of the time it was done beforehand.
December wrapped up with 350 miles and January had close to 300. By the time Jon Wilson and I left for Huntsville, Texas, I felt very confident about the sub 20 hour goal. Jon was running his second 50 miler and had a great training period also. On Friday morning we met up with some fellow Idiots for a pre-race trail inspection. I always like to run a portion of the trail just get a feel for the terrain and course conditions. The course is a 20 mile “loop” but the initial 3 miles is an “out and back” situation. After 6 miles of running, laughing and shooting video, we were ready to call it a day and relax before the race.
We met a group of PRS teammates and members of the Idiots Running Club for dinner on Friday night. Coach Jeff and I discussed race strategy, pacing and nutrition. Jeff Jones was also running the 100 miler, his first, and we all agreed that he and I would run together for the first three loops if possible. The plan was to average 3:30 per loop for those 3 and then try to hang on and come in under 20 hours. I laughed and said that since my racing bib number was 37, I would finish in 19 hours and 37 minutes. Returning to my hotel room I started to sort my race gear. Inside my bag I found some Jelly Beans, a card from my wife and a couple of awesome pictures from my boys. My family means everything and it’s always a huge boost when they reinforce just how much they believe in me.
Once again, I used this 100 miler as an opportunity to raise money for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. Most of you know the reasons why I am so passionate about this cause so I won’t rehash it here.The support, as always, was amazing and the donations have totaled over $1,100 with money still coming in. Thank you to everybody that participated in this event. I am, of course, still accepting donations and will continue to do so until there is a cure. My dad, a cancer survivor, told me he would be making the 11 hour trip to Texas to watch. This would mark the first time he had seen me race so to say that this provided some extra incentive to do well would be a huge understatement. I watched cancer steal many things from him, and I watched helplessly as my version of Superman stumbled, but it couldn’t touch his inner character or desire to fight and ultimately win. I don’t have a tenth of that type of mental strength but I was motivated to step up and make him proud.
On to the race..... Jeff Jones and I ran together for the first 20 mile loop starting in the dark with headlamps and finishing in 3:12:54. It was largely uneventful but did provide us with a good feel of the course and a sense of the upcoming weather conditions. It was going to get warm later in the day. Jeff and I talked, laughed and had a great time with several other runners. Sounds silly but I always enjoy this first loop because it gives me a chance to judge, and be judged, by others in my “pack”. At 5’11 and 200 lbs I don’t exactly look like a runner. I love to hear people talk about their overall time goal and then try to decide where they will actually come in. I usually take note of a few that have goals similar to mine and then attempt to keep tabs on them through the day. This was no exception as I made mental and, because I can’t keep my mouth shut most of the time, verbal observations of those going out entirely too fast. I’m sure they thought the same thing about me.
As we set out on the second loop, Jeff commented that he had never felt better on a 20 mile run. I found it interesting because my legs were feeling a little heavy from about mile 10 on. Of course, I wasn’t about to admit that to anybody but I was slightly jealous of him and a little disturbed at how I felt this early. Luckily, I have run a few of these and know that things can change in a hurry and it didn’t matter how I felt at mile 20. The day was still young with 80 miles to go and several hours with varying degrees of physical and mental pain in store, the plan stayed the same. Keep moving forward and don’t look back.
Things stayed pretty much on track through the first part of loop two. Around mile 27, I noticed Jones was beginning to struggle with staying on his feet. He started tripping on the famous roots of Rocky Raccoon, certainly not the first or last victim to succumb to this pitfall, and hit the dirt several times. I didn’t say a whole lot because I really didn’t want to jinx myself and there isn’t much you can say other than, “Pick up your feet or you will be on your face.” It was around mile 30 or 31 that I quit hearing him fall and realized our plan to run 60 miles together was not going to happen. Jeff is a former Marine and that alone was enough to convince me he would be fine. Combine that with his better than average running ability, it was easy for me to continue on and run my race secure in the knowledge that he would finish his first 100 miler and probably do it under 24 hours.
As I wrapped up loop 2 in 3:30:35, the noon sun was promising to make the 3rd loop a little tougher. I set out for miles 40-60 with a little less enthusiasm than before but still on pace to hit my goal. This loop really was hard on me. The temps rose into the 70’s which is not super hot but when the temp at home was like 10 it sure seemed warm. Like any race that requires travel the locals fared much better than the rest. I had salt caked around my eyes and my shirt was drenched leaving me struggling with burning eyes. At every aid station I sucked down Gatorade, if it was an option, poured water over my head and face and filled my carry bottle with ice when it was available to keep my core temperature down and reduce the chances of dehydration and cramping.
There is a 6 mile stretch called the Dam Nation Loop that is probably the toughest part of the course. The trail becomes rough and is a very long, lonely stretch that wears a person down mentally. Every single ultra, no matter the distance, has a low. That point that tests your mental endurance more than your physical. I was there. This stage was very hard for me to continue running. All I wanted was to sit down in the shade. Maybe lay down for a few minutes. Fortunately, every time I started to have myself convinced that this was a great idea, I would come up on somebody walking and struggling worse than me. I always like to say that I’m not competitive but.... well, we all know that’s a lie. Nothing better than picking somebody off, passing them and pretending to feel great. I finished this loop in 4:00:23, slower than the first two but keeping on pace for my goal.
The 4th loop. Miles 60-80. This meant two things. One, I could have a pacer. Two, I would need a headlamp because it would be getting dark soon. Oh wait... It also meant that if I could finish the next 40 miles under 9 hours then I would hit my goal. No problem, right? Wrong. I had this same scenario the past two years and failed to deliver either time. But I knew that I had just survived the toughest part of the race and the next 20 miles would be very revealing. Coach Jeff geared up and hit the trail as my pacer. We were less than one mile in before we met Jon Wilson finishing his 50 miler. He had a tough day due to some dehydration, cramping and and IT Band issue but he was still going to finish strong with a very respectable sub 10 time. He then, like always because he is an awesome friend, took over as my Crew Chief. Nice work, Professor.
As we came through the mile 64 aid station I saw my Dad waiting. We stopped briefly as I introduced Jeff and posed for a quick picture. This was the first time I had seen him during the race and it really put an extra spring in my step. We made it to about mile 67 before it became necessary to use the headlamps. Maybe I was delirious or completely exhausted but Coach had me laughing and smiling the entire loop. Even the hell of the Dam Nation Loop was mellowed by our nonsense. Jeff is not a trail runner. He is training for an Iron Man this spring. The trail proved to be a little difficult for him and he tripped a few times. The fact that it was completely dark and he had never seen this rough part of the trail were probably major contributing factors. Still... call me mean or whatever but I laughed every single time.
Jeff brought me through this loop in 4:14:54, much better than I had managed in the past and leaving about 5 hours to hit my goal finish time. I took just a minute to change shirts, opting for a long sleeve tech, because I was afraid it might cool down. Thus far it had not. In fact, it became more humid as the sun disappeared but I have been caught in the damp cold of a Texas night before and wasn’t going to take any chances. At this point, Tanci Foster, a PRS team mate, Huntsville area resident and member of the Idiots Running club took over pacing duties. Coach gave her a few simple instructions, basically telling her not to let me be a sissy, and we were off.
Tanci led me through the next 12 miles in 3 hours. This was exactly what I had hoped for. Having been through this loop four times already, I knew that these were the hardest miles. A couple of things I observed during this time. Tanci is a pretty tough lady. She started her day with spin class, boot camp and then came over to the race where she hiked in a few miles to volunteer at the Dam Nation Aid Station. She left to meet her husband and children before returning with her son to pace me. She had never ran more than 13 miles yet here she was, tired and worn out from a long day, pacing me through midnight. She certainly did not have to do this, the pay was horrible, she was tired and I’m sure that I wasn’t as gracious as I should have been. Especially when she tripped and fell. Seems like this part of the course was not easy on the trail newbies but I couldn’t help but laugh.
As we came through mile 92, Coach Jeff and Jon were waiting. I really didn’t want anybody pacing me through the final 8 and was very relieved to find out that Jeff did not plan to. He told me that I had one hour and forty five minutes to finish with a sub 20. I did the math in my head and knew that as easy as it sounded, 8 miles in 1:45 was going to be tight. I mean, at mile 92 things kind of slow down. I took off and felt pretty good crossing a section of single track trail until my headlamp went very dim and I managed to trip. For some reason I didn’t find this near as funny as it was when my friends were tripping. Weird. I was a little irritated by the headlamp but it was my own fault. Jon and I had made a special trip to Walmart the night before for fresh batteries. I’m positive that I had a plan or some beyond genius level reason not to change them out before the race but I really can’t remember what it was. Whatever. I needed to figure out exactly how to finish this race without a light because the one I had wasn’t going to last much longer.
Somewhere around this point I met Jeff Jones and his pacer, Chris Cochran, on the trail. They were about 6 or 7 miles behind me and Jeff was looking really good. This was very motivating to me. I love watching my friends succeed and Jeff was 15 miles from rocking a sub 24 in his first 100 miler. Nothing sweeter than that. Continuing across this section much slower than I would have like was frustrating but I really couldn’t blame anybody but myself. WHY hadn’t I put in fresh batteries? Dumb. Then something weird happened. I came to a crossroads in the trail and noticed three headlamps going the wrong way. Could it be my crew hiking back to the main road? Nah.... “Hey!! Coach!! Jon!! Is that you?” I couldn’t believe it when they answered. I told them that I needed a light and Jon responded, “Sure. Come get it.” Come get it?? I wasn’t super polite here but I asked if he might bring it to me and continued running on the course. Jon laughed and chased me down, traded lights and headed back to meet me at the finish line. It’s good to have friends.
It was at this point that I really had to question things. Did I still want it as bad as I did the day before? Did I still have my eye on the prize? I asked myself these questions several times over the next 3.5 miles. The answer was always, without hesitation, yes. I managed to cover those few miles in 39 minutes. For me, that is blazing fast for 95 miles in to a race. I snagged some water and a small cup of mashed potatoes at the last aid station and continued on my way. Talking to a dude that was pacing another runner as we left the aid station, he told me that his buddy was up ahead and hurting. I couldn’t help but lick my lips at the thought of picking up another position in the race. I had no idea which place I was running in overall but it didn’t really matter. All I knew is that I could be one spot higher if I put a little effort into it.
I did run. The next 4.5 miles were tough but I really felt good considering where I was in the race. In my previous 100’s there wasn’t much opportunity for me to run during the final 30 miles or so because I always had some swelling and a lot of pain. Not this time. I felt good. My body was tired but not hurt. My heart rate had dropped over the course of the day and averaged 126 for the entire 100. The final 3 miles is an out and back so I was able to meet a lot of people heading out for their 4th and 5th loops. It was motivating to see the looks on their faces and hear the comments about how good I looked as I made the final push. Having memorized the entire course I knew my finishing time was going to be close. Not close to 20 hours. I’m talking about close to the 19 hours and 37 minutes I had predicted the night before. It was almost laughable. Almost.
As I came down the final straightaway that led to the finish line and the official clock became visible it was apparent that I had pulled off not only a sub 20 but also hit my prediction like a bulls-eye. My official finish time was 19 hours 37 minutes and 25 seconds. 19th overall and 5th in my age group. Not bad for a slacker like me. It was extra sweet to see not only my coach, friends, teammates and IRC members cheering for me but my Dad was waiting with a huge smile. I felt a lot like I did when I was just kid on the high school wrestling team so many years ago that would look up into the stands to see if his Dad was watching. Funny how some things never change.