Rocky Raccoon 50 – February 13th, 2016 – Huntsville State Park – Huntsville, TX
It took me a looong time as a runner to finally work up the courage to run a 50 mile race. It had been in the back of my head for many years, but I just kept defaulting back to the shorter and easier marathon distance. Part of me was disappointed that in December I dropped from the 50M to the marathon at the Brazos Bend 100. So, in late December, I finally committed to doing 50 miles and signed-up for the Rocky Raccoon 50.
In the week leading up to this race, the mission became deeply personal. After feeling like I had stagnated at success in the marathon and 50k, I felt like I needed something more and had to go prove something to myself. I came to the realization that what held me back from attempting 50 miles all these years was a fear of failure, and a lack of confidence in myself. After a strong month of training in January, I finally overcame this mental block, and set myself an ambitious goal of doing this race in below 7 hours. I also secretly wanted to get a top 3 finish and show that I was more than just a decent marathoner. So I came into this race very excited, and very confident. I was going after it, and it was going to be epic!
I’m not going to write a lengthy review of the race, as it is a well established staple of Texas Trail and Ultra Running. The race is put on expertly by Tejas Trails and takes place in the rolling hills of Huntsville State Park nestled in the Piney Woods. It has all you can ask of an ultra, with well attended and stocked aid stations, good course markings, and wonderful volunteers. That is all I will say about the race itself, this blog is going to focus on the race itself and the successes (and a few failures) of my first 50 miler.
Pre-Race: I arrived at the park on Friday afternoon to grab my race packet. Shortly after doing this I found fellow Team TROT members Tracie Akerhielm who was at the race working for Altra and Jeff Ball who was running the race as well. They were hanging with TROT Ambassador Marc Henn. Marc was going to be located at one of the aid stations and crewing Jeff for the race. Marc graciously offered to help me out as well, so I gave him some gels and a bottle to take with him so he could have stuff ready for me so I could avoid an aid station stop. After hanging at the park for a bit, I met up with Jeff, Tracie and another Team TROTer Jeff Miller for dinner. Jeff Miller would be tackling the 50k as a training race for an upcoming 100k he has in the spring. After a nice dinner, I headed back to the hotel and hit the sack early for the 6 AM start.
Race Morning: Things went pretty much as planned here. I woke up a 4 AM, had my coffee, pooped and ate a banana and a few bagels. Around 5 AM I headed for the park and stashed my gear in Tracie’s Altra tent near the start line. We watched Jeff Miller go off in the 50k at 5:45 AM, and then I lined up shortly after to start my 50 mile journey. The first hour or so of the race would be dark, so I ensured my headlamp was ready to go. At 6 AM, the race began.
Loop 1: The goal of the 1st loop was simple. Get through it and feel like I hadn’t really run yet. The course was divided into three 16.67 mile loops…so getting through 16+ miles and feeling like I hadn’t run would be an accomplishment. Mentally I knew if I did this, then I could gut out another 33 or so miles. At 6 AM the gun went off. Jeff Ball flew out to a blazing start, as he was shooting for a 6:30. He quickly pulled away and left me with a pack of about 4 other runners who were bunched up for the first few miles. I started off at a conservative pace running the first three miles at about an 8:30 average. This was a little slower than I wanted, so I picked up the pace. To run a 7 hour 50 miler, you need to average 8:24. My goal was to average 8:15 to 8:20 so I could allow myself a few brief stops at aid stations. By mile 3, the group I was with took off. There were 4 guys who I let go ahead of me. At this point, I dropped my pace to 8:10 or so and told myself to run my own race. At mile 5.7 or so I hit the first aid station and saw Marc. I skipped taking any aid at this point and kept going. At this point we were on an out and back section of the course, and I saw that I was running in 7th place and was about a minute behind the larger group fighting for 2nd. Well, its a long race…just let it go. At Mile 9.3 I hit the aid station again and got a fresh bottle/gels from Marc and also dumped my headlamp as it was light out now. At this point I stopped for a few seconds, grabbed a banana and took a caffeinated power gel and kept going. As I hit Mile 10 I still felt great. I told myself I only need to do this 4 more times and I’m 20% done with the race. Mentally this felt awesome, as I felt like I hadn’t even started running yet due to the relatively conservative pace.
I roared through the next 6 miles without stopping at any aid stations. As I came into the 1st loop I was feeling awesome. I reached my first goal – complete a loop and feel good. The legs still felt fresh and I had lots of energy left. I briefly stopped at the start/stop aid station and grabbed some electro-bites for the road (was craving some solid food) and went on my merry way.
Loop 2: I knew the 2nd loop would be a bit of a transition loop for me. Once I got to the 50k point, I knew the war would start. But, early on I still felt good. I sustained a decent pace for the first 4-5 miles. I had pulled into 5th place by this point, as one of the guys in front of me stopped at the stop/start (I think he DNF’d) and I passed another one of them around mile 18. As I came toward the 2nd aid station at mile 22, I saw Jeff Miller and told him I felt really good. I told Marc the same thing. At this point I was feeling very positive about things and got a little excited and laid down my fastest mile of the day (7:56). After I saw this, I backed off a bit and went back to my 8:10 – 8:20 world. At mile 26 I saw Marc again and grabbed a fresh bottle and a bearded brothers bar for the road. I had taken a number of gels as well as two packages of Electro-Bites, but by now I wanted to eat something a little more substantial to make sure I kept myself fueled for the next 24 miles. As I came I came through the marathon point under 3:40. I was still on pace for a sub 7 hour race.
I was sustaining a good pace until around the 50k mark, and that’s when things went downhill both mentally and physically for a bit. Part of it was the realization that I had just run 31 miles and still had 19 to go. Part of it was that I was finally starting to get tired and my body was feeling the effort. This is the point where I hit my first rough patch of the race. I had about 2.5 miles back to the start/stop aid station, and I told myself I just needed to make it there and I can take a moment to restock and reset. My pace slowed to the 8:50 – 9:10 range for the last 3 miles of the second loop. Things were also starting to feel a bit sore and was causing me to slow. My stomach was also not in perfect shape and I did not want to eat or take any gels at this point. I came in at the end of the 2nd loop in a time of 4:32. I was still technically on pace for sub 7, but I knew with the slower pace that it was an unlikely time. I reset my expectations to go for sub 7:30 (my B goal) and trying to hold onto a top 5 finish. Because my stomach was not feeling great, I decided to fill my bottle with some Tailwind so I could continue to get calories via liquid only. I also decided to take some Tylenol to help dull a bit of the muscle pain so I could keep pushing.
Loop 3: The darkest and worst miles took place at the start of the third loop. Miles 34-37 were some of my slowest miles of the day, with a pace close to 10 minutes. They were also the miles where my mind went to the dark and doubtful places you hear about in ultra running. My body was complaining, and mentally I was starting to doubt I had enough gas left to finish the race. But, I went on, not wanting to disappoint myself, or my team mates who were cheering me on. Slightly after mile 37, I was able to pull into 4th place. The guy told me “go catch those guys in front” and this gave me a boost. I don’t know if it was the Tailwind, the Tylenol or the encouraging words from my competitor, but around Mile 39 I started to break through the wall. At this point, I saw Jeff Ball and he told me that I was gaining on the 2nd/3rd place guys and to go get them. My spirits were much better now, and my pace dropped back below 9 minutes. In the out and back section, I saw how close I was to getting into the top 3 and pushed it harder. At mile 42.6 (aid station) the guy running in 3rd stopped to fill his bottle. Luckily Marc had left me a bottle and I just swooped through and grabbed it! Whoa! I was now in 3rd place in my first 50 miler. I told myself to hold on for 7 more miles and to go get it! I got a 2nd mental boost when I looked at my watch and learned that I had covered over 43 miles in 6 hours. My previous best mileage in a 6 hour event was 38. I pushed hard for the next three miles. I hit mile 45 and told myself I was 90% done. The last 5 miles were a grind physically, but mentally I was doing great. I kept telling myself positive things and just willed the body to keep going at a good pace. I was able to average about 9:30 miles from miles 45-49.
When I hit the final mile I was just going nuts. I started running hard and was just mentally overjoyed. At this point I knew I had it – I was going to get a podium finish in my first 50 miler. I had also done enough to keep my time very close to 7 hours, and I knew at this point I’d come in at 7:03 to 7:05. As I came off the trail and hit the final quarter mile of dirt road, I went into an all out sprint and started screaming profanities to the spectators (my normal style). F**k yeah! I just ran 50 f**king miles! I crossed the finish in 7:04:09 with my hands held high and a huge smile on my face. I f**king did it! Goals met (mostly). Podium finish. I had finally proven myself to myself…dream big and be big damn it!
Right after finishing I got some water and food and plopped in my chair. Jeff, Tracie and Marc all offered me congratulations and reassured me that I did indeed kill it out there. I was tired and damn sore. But damn was I happy!
What Went Well
Preparation/Training: I came into the race well prepared both physically and mentally. I had run the trails at Huntsville State Park 4 times prior to this race and was very familiar with the course and all it’s nuances. This left me very mentally prepared to take on the challenge. I also kept pumping myself up all week with mental thoughts about how awesome this was going to be and how well I was going to do. My mind had no doubt that this was going to be awesome, and mental preparedness is half the battle in completing a long distance. I felt my training also had me well prepared. I spent most of January running higher mileage weeks (for me) and running races on “tired” legs with no taper. When I did the Louisiana Marathon in mid-January I came into it as part of a 50 mile week with no taper. I missed a 50k on January 23rd due to illness, but followed this up with a 65 mile week which included 35 training miles and a 50k race on January 30th. I took no break and followed this week up with a 50 mile week that concluded on February 7th with a 20 mile run of the Rocky Raccoon 100 loop. I was honestly drained after these to weeks of hard running, but it left my body strong. I did a one week taper leading into the 50 miler and only ran 15 miles during the 6 days leading up to the race. I took 3 days off during the week to allow the sore muscles to recover and some minor injuries to heal up. I felt very fresh going into the race on Saturday.
Gear Selection: Over the years I have made some great choices in running gear. I am convinced that the gear I used was key to making this a successful race. I ended up with no blisters, no injuries, no chaffing, and no hydration issues! Key components were:
- Altra Superiors – I chose to go with a little bit more shoe than I am used to because of the long distance. The Altra Superiors still allow for great ground feel, but pack a little more cushioning and tread that allowed me to successfully navigate the roots on the course for 50 miles.
- Feetures Socks – I have run in Feetures Running Socks for almost 3 years now, and I never get blisters or chaffing or any hot spots. These socks are designed with no seams so the fit the feet perfectly.
- Nathan Fire and Ice Water Bottle – I carried a 20 oz. water bottle that was insulated to keep fluids cold. This Nathan Handled is very light and easy to carry. With the frequent aid stations in this race I could make short stops to fill the bottle.
- Julbo Eyeware Glasses – These sunglasses are the best. The are designed for athletes so they stay on your face even on the ups and downs of the trails. They also provide for great vision and despite blocking the sun, still allow you to see well enough to navigate some more technical sections of trail.
Fueling/Nutrition: For my first attempt at 50 miles I did pretty well with fueling. At no point in the race did I feel like I had no energy or was hungry. I took the advice of friends and ate early and often. During the race, I consumed 8 PowerGels. I started taking these at Mile 5 and took them every 5-7 miles after. At Mile 9 I ate my first solid food (banana) and had 2 or 3 more during the course of the race. I also consumed some Fuel 100 Electro-Bites during the 2nd loop. I also had a tasty Raspberry Bearded Brothers bar during the 2nd loop which was the most substantial food I ate during the race. This gave me a much needed boost prior to going into Loop 3. By mile 33, my stomach started feeling a bit upset, so I switched to Tailwind for most of the last loop. I supplemented this with a few gels, but took in no solid food on the last loop. I have to say that Tailwind saved my butt, as it was the only thing I really wanted during the last loop.
Pacing: I went out at the pace I wanted to and kept the race on my terms. Around mile 2 a group of guys went ahead of me and I was running in 7th place by the end of loop 1 (mile 16.7). My strategy/plan was to run 8:10 – 8:20 miles and shoot for a sub 7 hour race. I did this well on loop 1 and was right where I needed to be. By early in loop 2, I had pulled into 5th place and was still running strong (basically at my loop 1 pace). I slowed significantly by loop 3 (8:30 – 9:00 pace) but was strong enough to pass two more people and hold on to 3rd place. In retrospect, I could have gone out a little slower and maybe run more even splits, but who knows. I am happy with how my pacing went overall, especially given the longest I had ever run before this was 38 miles and I didn’t know what to expect.
What Did Not Go Well
This is a much shorter list, as I’m pretty happy with my performance. A few things I can improve upon though. First, I should have had a bottle at the start/stop. I spent about a minute at the start/stop aid station on the last loop and could have been faster had I had some bottles and nutrition stashed. Next, I broke one of my golden rules of running and took Tylenol at the start of the third loop. Nothing in particular hurt, but I took it to dull some of the pain and soreness. While I got away with it this time, I didn’t like the fact that I used it to give me a bump. Lastly – while I’m happy with my pacing, I also know I could have done a bit better, especially if I conserved a bit early.
I want to make sure I thank everyone who supported me to achieve this goal. First off, a huge thanks to Marc Henn for being my impromptu crew. He undoubtedly shaved minutes off of my race time by having bottles and food ready for me. I also want to thank Trail Racing Over Texas and Team TROT. The support and encouragement I get from ya’ll is amazing, and you guys are a huge part of why I chose to go after this goal and distance. Also, a huge congrats to Jeff Ball who won the race in a crazy time of 6:23 and won by 40 minutes. Also congrats to Jeff Miller for running an awesome 50k and taking 5th overall. What an amazing day, what an amazing race…I’m so glad I went for it!
Career Marathon/Ultra Number 44 – Ultra Number 7, 2nd Ultra of the Year
Time: 7:04:09 – 3rd Place Overall
First 50 Miler – Distance PR