Rocky Raccoon 50k – November 7, 2015 – Huntsville State Park
The Rocky Raccoon 50k is a fairly small and low key event put on by the East Texas Ultra Runners (ETUR) which base themselves out of Tyler, TX. The race takes place in Huntsville State Park, which is about an hour north of Houston in the heart of the Piney Woods of East Texas. This race is not to be confused with the Rocky Raccoon 50 miler or Rocky Raccoon 100 miler put on by Tejas Trails in the same park, both of those races being in February. This race is the epitome of no frills trail racing. Yes, it has chip based timing, but everything else is pretty basic. Trail markings are red and white stripped tape, “wrong ways” are marked with small logs across the trail, and aid stations only had the most basic offerings. The premise of this race is simple – go run some trails with no frills and no BS.
In this race recap I focus on a few things. First – I’ll provide a basic description of the race and the course for those who are interested in running it (note there was a 25k option for those interested in shorter distances). Second – I’ll discuss some key points on my race, and how I managed to come out the winner.
Huntsville State Park is a pretty nice oasis in the Piney Woods of Texas. It is and hour due north of Houston right off of I-45, making it a popular destination for Houstonians who need a break from the city. The park boasts 21 miles of hiking and biking trails, most of which navigate around Raven Lake that serves as the centerpiece of the park.
The course of the 50k consists of two loops around the lake (with a few out and backs mixed in). The race is 100% trail with only a few road crossings near the start/finish area. The trails are very pleasant to run on. The 1st few miles of the course run along some non-technical single track trail with some occasional roots to navigate. The next four or five miles are along some fairly straight jeep roads, which offer some small rolling hills to vary it up (this is an out and back section). The course then goes back to single track for a mile or so in a section that gets pretty rooty and rolls through a pine forest. The trail floor is nice and soft due to pine needles. You then get a few more miles of jeep road before the last 7 or so miles go back to single track with varying surfaces of dirt, sand, rooty sections, and softer pine needles. The back half of the course is really the most pretty with some nice rolling trails through the forest, and some sections right along the lake. There are a few sections of this part of the trail that has boardwalk sections that cross the shallow portions of the lake. In general, the trails are not at all technical. There are no rocks (although plenty of roots), and there are no difficult rises or inclines. The trails gently roll, with no incline or decline being more than 30′ or so in any given section.
There were 4 aid stations on the course, one at about mile 4.5, one around mile 7.5, one around mile 12.5, and one at the start/finish area. The aid stations had basic offerings of water, Heed, various candy, Coke, and some basic salty snacks. There were no gels or goos that I saw, although I did not spend much time at the aid stations.
The race offered pretty nice custom made finisher awards. No medals, but every finisher had a choice of a glass finishers award, or an engraved wooden plaque. Nice to get something different from a race every now and then. The 50k had 70 participants and the 25k probably had 80 or so. There was not a single DNF!
Race Recap – How the Race Was Won
I ended up winning this race despite treating it as more of a training run. I had done some fairly hard (and longer) running the prior week that is atypical of my normal race week. I’m at the point where I usually taper for 5-7 days before any race, but leading into this race I only “tapered” for 2 days. The premise of this was to see if I could run a decent 50k on tired legs as a nice long training run/test for my 1st 50 miler at Brazos Bend in December. The main goals for this race were to run it smart enough so I would not end up walking, or slowing down to something more than 10 minutes per mile at the end. I wasn’t going to race it all out, but wanted to hang around an 8 min/mile pace.
Since the weather was forecast to be cool (low 60’s) and rainy, I decided I would minimize aid station stops and carry my own nutrition and water for the race. Being a 50k is a glorified marathon, gels and shot blocks were going to be the primary fuel. I’d supplement with a few chunks of banana or a handful of pretzels from an aid station if I wanted something more solid.
The race started at 6:00 AM in the dark. I went out at an 8:20 – 8:30 pace for the first few miles to get my legs warmed up. Two others took off ahead of me and had pulled out of view after about mile 2 (the seemed to be running 7:30 or so pace). I was carrying my Nathan Fire and Ice 20 oz. Handheld with half Powerade and half water. I had 6 gels and one package of shot blocks. Goal was to make it the first half of the race without stopping at an aid station, and refilling water at the halfway point. As I was coming into the 1st aid station at the end of the out and back, I got the 1st glimpse of the leaders. One was minutes ahead of me and the 2nd place guy was maybe 30 seconds to a minute ahead. This early in the race, it was hard to tell if this would last, but both looked good. At mile 5 the guy behind me caught up to me despite me having settled into a 7:25 – 7:45 pace as I ran the easier section of jeep road. As we progressed to the single track portion, this guy was right on my heels. A few times I tried to slow down to let him pass me but he’d slow down with me.
It is no secret that I like to run alone, so after 5 miles of this guy not leaving me alone I was getting a bit annoyed. He refused to pass me regardless of the pace I ran. If I surged, he surged, if I slowed down, he slowed down. I was progressing at a 7:45 – 8:00 pace for most of the 2nd half of loop one. My legs felt a little heavy and tired for the bulk or the race at this point, but I kept pushing. Around mile 11 the 2nd place guy came into sight. We did the slow play pursuit here and me and my shadow passed him shortly after aid station 3. At mile 13 I took a caffeinated gel and this seemed to be the kick I needed, as shortly after I felt the heaviness in my legs go away and things were finally starting to click.
As we were coming into the start/finish area at the halfway point, we saw the leader ahead of us, he had lost some steam on the back half of the 1st loop. It was at this point that I realized that I had a shot to win this race. My shadow looked pretty good, but I realized he was not carrying any water or nutrition (at least that I could see). I know he had run 15+ miles with no water, and this would likely come back to haunt him. Four of us came into the halfway point within a minute of each other. I was only 20 seconds behind the leader.
I also at this point noticed the leader was not carrying any water or nutrition. I saw him grab a few animal crackers at the aid station, then bee-line to get some Gatorade he had stashed at the start line. He drank a bit and went out. I made an efficient aid station stopped, only taking time to refill my hand held with water and grab two banana chunks. I was running again in less than 30 seconds. At this point I finally lost my shadow, as he needed to take a longer aid station stop. I was thrilled to be on my own and running solo in 2nd place. At this point the slow pursuit of the win began. My legs had loosened appreciably, especially after taking a 2nd caffeine gel at mile 16. Things were starting to click – game on!
I put the pedal to the metal on the jeep road portion of the trail, and started to gain some time on the 1st place guy. By the time I got to the aid station at the end of the out and back, I was only running 40 seconds behind. Since he had no water, he had to stop at the aid station. With my Nathan bottle still pretty much full, I blew through with no stop. The leader sped up again heading back on the jeep road, but I continued my pursuit. I ran some strong splits on the back part of the jeep road with some 7:30 miles mixed in. By the time we got back to single track, I was within 20 seconds of the leader. As I passed a volunteer directing runners, she told me “you almost got him.” I told her, “don’t worry, I will get him, he’s going down!” By this point I knew I had a decent lead over 3rd place, as they were running at least a minute behind when I saw them on the out and back. It still wasn’t time to push quite yet, but just to continue my slow and steady pursuit.
I spent most of the single track section in pursuit, but could not see the guy in most places since the trail twisted quite and this part of the trail was pretty dense with trees. Once I got to the next jeep road section, I knew I had him. As we pulled into Aid Station 2, I did not need to stop, but would stop if the leader stopped. He stopped, so i took the opportunity to top my bottle off. This would be my last stop for the rest of the race. We both pulled out of the aid station together, but at this point he had slowed down a lot and was basically walking. I pulled away at mile 23 and that was it…I was in the lead. I spent the next 5 to 10 minutes assessing my body and my remaining water and nutrition. My legs felt good, and my energy level felt good. I had two caffeine gels left as well as a vanilla one and some shot blocks. I had a full bottle of water that only needed to last 7.5 miles – no problem. I had been running some of the best splits of the race at this point, and was knocking out 7:45 – 7:50 pace on single track portions. As I continued to click along, I went into “don’t blow this mode,” basically telling myself to not do anything stupid and be smart about pace and watch the energy level. I knocked off some good miles with decent splits until I hit 26. At this point I started slowing down just a bit. Pace dropped to around 8:10 – 8:15, but by this point I was gaining huge time on everyone else (though I did not know it at the time). What also contributed to the slow down was the weather. For the 1st half of the race, an on/off light rain had been falling. The trails handled this well and were not too muddy or slick. With 5 miles remaining in the race, it started to rain harder. Now parts of the trail had turned to mud. Some sections had running water. At this point I was OK with a slower pace, as the only thing that could cause me to blow my lead was taking a nasty fall from a slippery root or a muddy spot on the trail.
The last 2 miles were mentally challenging, but I got through them strong. As I descended into the finish area, I got a final charge of energy and blew across the finish line with a smile on my face! Race over, race won…I outlasted the field…race was a huge success!
So – to me the key to why I won this race was nothing more than smart pacing and proper nutrition and hydration. Smart pacing was more a function of treating this as a training run and not going as hard as I could have. This ensured I had plenty of energy at the end and did not slow down all that much (my miles splits were around 8:30). As for nutrition – simply carrying water and gels gave me a leg up on my competitors. A trail race is not a road race. There are not volunteers holding out cups for you to grab as you run by. You need to make sure you have what you need to be fueled. Being smart about what you carry helps you minimize aid station stops. Knowing what you want and need at an aid station helps you minimize time spent not running. This is especially important in the relatively short 50k, where speed can still trump outright endurance. Two of the four people who came through within a minute of each other after the 1st lap were carrying water. The two that did finished 1st and 2nd.
In summary, I had a great race. Despite treating this like a training run, I managed to snag a win. A big part of this was smart pacing, and carrying the right nutrition and gear, allowing for smart aid station stops.
Team TROT New Balance Jersey
North Face Flight Series Shorts
Merrell Trail Glove 3 Shoes
Nathan Fire and Ice 20oz. Hand Held
Career Marathon/Ultra #36 – 5th Ultra, 3rd 50k – 16th Marathon/Ultra of 2015
Finish Time – 4:03:55 (2nd fastest 50k, fastest on trail)
1st Place Overall – 5th career marathon/ultra OA win, 4th of 2015