The day before the event we had our pre-race briefing. This was the largest ultra by number of participants that I’ve ever run in: 376 hundred milers and 298 fifty milers. Many ultra events have only 150 or 200 participants total. They are quite unlike the masses at many 26.2 marathons and other road races. There are not many crazy-people out ther like us.
Weeks earlier, I decided to sign up for the 100 mile race. As is often my philosophy, I would rather DNF attempting a longer distance than to get an “official finish” doing even the exact same distance in a shorter race.
There are no buckles or finisher’s awards for DNFing but that is not why I run.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE each and every one of my buckles. But they are only metal trinkets compared to the intangible rewards of finishing an ultra.
“Even if I can’t go the whole way, ” I told myself, “If I can at least go further than 50 miles, it will be a good training run.”
However, as race day approached, I began to doubt the wisdom of signing up for the longer event.
I had been training, but not as much as I know I should have. It’s been a busy winter. I’ve been traveling more weekends than I’ve been at home. All of the lecturing and presenting is an honor, but it does interefere with my ultramarathon training.
Then the week prior to the race, I had bronchitis. I was coughing and coughing. I didn’t think doing the full hundred was possible.
I certainly didn’t want to make myself sick, or have the bronchitis turn into something worse, such as pneumonia.
I didn’t want to DNF my race in my mind before it had even started, but I also had to be realistic.
A wiser person may have not showed up at all and been a DNS (did not start).
However, I already had paid my registration fees and for my flights.
“It’s too late to back out now,” I thought.
I took the early start as I often do. Slow pokes like me need as much time on the clock as we can get. As we prepared to begin at 5AM, rain began to fall. Torrents of water fell, obscuring the trail. Lightning briefly lit up the woods. There was water everywhere.
Now I don’t mind running in the rain… a quiet, warm drizzle…. not a downpour complete with lightning and thunder.
I wondered out loud, as I often do while running an ultra, “Why oh why couldn’t I have chosen a more mainstream sport to take up in my middle age? Why not something a little less mentally and physically arduous? Like golf? Or fly fishing?”
Our feet were soaked within a couple of hundred yards of the start. No use changing socks, they would be soaked in moments.
Today would be a test of my foot-taping.
Since learning how to pre-tape my feet before races, blisters have become a rarity. And any that do show, are minor and manageable. In such wet conditions, I was not sure what to expect, even with the best of taping.
I like this photo.
I didn’t realize until I was going through my photos this morning that I just happened to capture the “One Way” sign pointing directly into my mouth.
Yup, that’s the goal, for food and drink to go one way, into my mouth… not up and out the other way!
Some have said that at ultramarathon is an all-day, all-night party with an all-you-can-eat buffet table every 4 or 5 miles.
Others say that ultramarathons are not a foot race, but a race to see who is able to eat and refuel continuously over the longest distances.
There is a lot of truth to all of this.
No food = no go.
Nausea and sometimes vomiting is part of the experience of ultra-running, but me, I’d rather not go there, thank you very much.
I prefer for my food to stay in my stomach where it belongs, not chumming the side of the trail for raccoons.
Slowly the sun rose, the cloudy skies kept the forest dark hours longer than it should have.
Rocky Raccoon is run on the trails of Huntsville State Park. As hundred mile races go, it is considered an “easy” hundred, if running 100 miles could ever be considered easy. Relative flat, with only the occasional tree root to trip over, it usually has a high percent finisher’s rate.
The event consists of five 20-mile loops. I do not do well at high altitude. The air felt thick, from the humidity and also the lower altitude.
“Too bad, I have bronchitis and it’s so muddy,” I thought, “this is a race I could possibly done well at. ”
Of course, in my mind, if I simply finish, I consider myself to be doing well.
We were told that the trails would recover quickly. Despite all the heavy rain, don’t worry about it…the sandy soil should drain well.
That is what we were told.
But as you can see be the following pictures….that is not what happened.
There were a few sections with wooden boardwalks over them.
After almost slipping off of one, I decided to simply wade through the wet sections. I was slow and backed up other runners the board walk; my feet were already soaked anyway.
The rangers had reported seeing a 9-ft long alligator here only a few days earlier. Before the sun came up, as I slogged through the water and mud over my ankles, I imagined myself tripping over a “log” that was not really a log, but an alligator, which would turn on me and drag me into the deep dark water… never to be seen or heard from again.
It’s funny what kind of thoughts cross your mind when running a night in the rain in a dark wet swamp.
I coughed continuously, I was surprised by how much sputum there was down deep in my lungs. Despite how miserable the conditions and how poorly I felt, it actually was a beautiful course. I was glad that I had come down to run it.
One of the aspects of ultra-running that I very much enjoy, is that I get to see and experience many natural and wild places, under all kinds of conditions, in a way the few people do. After several hours of running or fast-walking, you begin to feel as if you are part of nature, rather than separate from it.
It is true that you could get a similar experience by hiking and backpacking but it is not the same. To go 100 miles on a backpack trip would take several days; the experience lacks the intensity as does ultrarunning on the same trails.
Physical and mental hardship distills an experience. My memories of past ultras remain clear and fresh in my mind, unlike so many other memories which slowly fade with time.
The aid stations were well-stocked; the volunteers cheerful and supportive.
I’ve run in many other ultras over the years. Some events know how to support their runners better than others.
Rocky Raccoon is an ultra which certainly has its act together. What a well-organized and well-run event this is.
The name of this race was “Rocky Raccoon” but there were almost no rocks. Several of us, decided that a better name would be “Rooty Raccoon” for all of the tree roots to trip over in the mud and leaves.
My upper respiratory illness and the muddy conditions, finally began to take their toll. I slowed down.
I felt so tired, oh so tired. I had an urge to lay down and just go to sleep. Although that feeling is completely normal and expected at 2AM, it is not normal at 2PM.
The first formal cut-off would be mile 80 at 6AM. I realized that the chances of even going that far or that long were unlikely.
How far did I want to go?
How far am I capable of going?
These thoughts went through my mind over and over as I finished up my second loop.
“I should not be feeling this bad, not this early in the race, ” I thought.
As I approached the start/finish staging area and turnaround at mile 40, I had a decision to make:
Today was not going to be my day.
Should I just quit now?
Or should I try for another 20 mile loop for a total of 60 miles?
I was sure I could do 60 miles, but doing 80 miles was extremely unlikely… 100 miles would be impossible.
I got some stuff out of my drop bag. I rested a while before I made my decision.
“If I quit now, I will be showered and dry. I’d be able to go to a restaurant to get a good dinner to fill my stomach,” I thought.
“ If I keep going, it will be in the middle of the night when I finish the next loop. There would be no going to a restaurant for dinner because no where will be open.”
“Hmmmm… eat dinner now vs get no dinner later.” Well, that is what made my decision for me.
I had nothing to prove. What would several more hours of misery prove? Nothing at all.
So I decided to drop.
I went to one of the race officials to inform him of my decision.
He tried to convince me otherwise, “But you look so good! You have plenty of time, why don’t you wait and see if you’ll feel better later.”
What he meant is that I didn’t have the glassy-eyed look of someone about to DNF. He was right.
It is easier to make a wise decision when one is still clear and coherent, however, compared to later when I may no longer be with it enough to recognize when it would be better to stop instead of go on.
And you know what? I don’t regret my decision to drop one bit. It just wasn’t my day.
Only an ultramarathoner would allow themselves to feel bad about going “only 40 miles.”
Running 40 miles in the mud while sick with bronchitis is certainly nothing to be ashamed about. Many runners run their entire lives and never go that far.
I met a couple of other runners from Canada at the hotel and later ate dinner with them at a Tex-Mex restaurant. Had I not dropped, I would not have had the pleasure of meeting them and their friends. Yes, I definitely will need to run an ultra up north sometime.
Rocky Raccoon is a race I’d like to come back and try again. I hope next time, it will be without the mud and the bronchitis.
"In the process of completely exhausting myself, I connect with an inner part of me ordinarily veiled by the everyday distractions of life. During that short time spent on a trail in the mountains, my life is reduced to its simplest terms. Most ultrarunners are people who find goodness and joy in difficult times, who see beyond the misery to the beauty of nature, and who truly realize the elemental and important aspects of life. Going for a run always clears my head... but running 100 miles distills my soul."
Keith Knipling - RUNNING THROUGH THE WALL